TRAVELING IN A GROUP CAN BE a beast when it comes to finances. Every time you want to tip someone $3 and there’s four of you, it’s always a mess of everyone checking his or her wallet, who has cash, and who just says, “Here, I have $3. It’s fine, who cares?”

Some people never have cash and promise to hit you back later, but when you’re home and travel-weary you’ll barely be able to remember. How many baht was that boat ride I covered for everyone? Either you or someone on your trip is bound to end up paying more. Without thinking ahead, group trips can get awkward, confusing, and exhausting, which is about the opposite of the feeling you want on a vacation.

To solve this, I learned a trick from my family, after going on vacations involving more than a dozen cousins and aunts and uncles. I’ve since adopted it to my friends and even used it when it’s just my boyfriend and me. It’s made all the difference.

The Kitty System

A kitty is a pool of money that you all contribute to equally at the beginning of a trip, and from which you pay any expenses that are equal or approximately equal for all parties. This means tipping, bus tickets, entrance fees, etc. It’s so much faster to just have one person bust out the kitty and pay for everyone with one transaction than for each person to pay individually.

That one person must be trustworthy, obviously, in both that he or she won’t steal from the money nor lose it. As I have been nicknamed before “The Black Hole” for losing the map I was just holding in a contained space, I do not usually hold the kitty. It’s an honor and a responsibility to be the kitty carrier, so consider buying yours a drink. Or take turns.

What it looks like

The kitty can be anything from a wad of cash with a particularly colored rubber band around it to a special change purse. I like a change purse, because then when the kitty’s running low, you can open and close the mouth of the purse and make meowing sounds. “The kitty’s hungry,” is what we say when we’re running low. When the kitty is starving, it means we’re about out of cash and we really need to hit up an ATM. (“Kitty” actually has nothing to do with cats; the word comes from “kit,” most likely, in 19th-century card games, but please don’t let that fact prevent you from incorporating meowing into your financial planning).

How much is in it

I like to start out with $200 each for about a week-long trip. We’ll most likely get more cash out midweek, but it helps you pace yourself. If you plan $500 total and then you’re out midweek, it’s not good. Perhaps have a kitty check each morning. If you’re way more organized than I am, you can even get a prepaid card, though I would certainly keep at least half the kitty in cash for food carts and tips.

What to do during meals

If you go out to meals together, you may want to use the kitty. But decide before you order if you’re going to. You should all plan to drink about the same amount and quality of alcohol, and all fall on the same vegan-to-meat-eater scale. If you have one person drinking Blanton’s Old Fashioneds and eating filet mignon, and another drinking water and munching a tofu scramble, someone’s getting screwed. But in general, if everyone’s eating and drinking in the same style, just split the damn bill evenly. You’re on vacation.

How to budget as a group

Be honest about your financial situation before you head out. The kitty plus travel and lodging is about the baseline of your trip expenses. If you’re all web developers who just sold your Facebook stock, then go live it up in Dubai for a week on 10Gs. My buds and I, we tend to travel a little more low-key. We’ll plan do cheap-o food carts most nights, and then have one blow-out nice meal. When my boyfriend and I were in Hawaii, and we didn’t get nearly as close to a volcano as we wanted to on foot, a guy told us he had a boat going out to see lava up from the ocean right then for $75 we didn’t plan on. We decided to skip the budgeted luau and go for the boat. Our kitty just wasn’t fat enough to do both, but the boat ride to dripping lava was unforgettable.

So be honest about your kitty. Though you shouldn’t travel if you can’t afford it, we all still do. If you need to go bone-thin alley cat kitty, just tell your friends ahead of time. It’s worse to get on the trip and realize the other people have fat cat kind of cash. It’s stressful to try to keep up.

Having a kitty will contribute to making your group trip the best kind of trip, with few worries, delays, or awkward moments, so you can just enjoy the adventure together.

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