the space between

In America, many families are scattered far and wide across the continent; some may even be living overseas. Approximately 100 years ago, my mother’s family all lived in one area of one state, and my father’s family lived in an even smaller ethnic community in one state. Traveling was of course more difficult so while the distances might have been shorter the travel time might have been equal. Today I live approximately five hours by car from my parents and my brother and his family. I live a two-hour flight from my mother’s parents, and a three-hour flight from where my father’s parents lived. At various points in my life I have lived up to twelve hours’ flight from my family.

My wife, being an immigrant, has even odder situation. Her family, for the most part, emigrated en masse to the New York area, so they all live within approximately 1-2 hours of each other. Her relatives who didn’t emigrate, however, live almost a day away. My brother’s wife has a similar situation.

So if you start by considering my nuclear family of four people, our links to other family spread out across the globe rapidly. Various reasons are behind where we all live. I ended up in the New York area because of work and remain here for work, and for my wife’s family and for a general love of the City. My brother made a conscious decision to leave New York for a more affordable area for raising a family. My parents moved to be closer to my brother (and closer to me, although still fairly far away). My father’s parents had moved to a warmer climate. My mother’s parents have lived within a ten-mile radius for the last 40 years. My wife’s sister and her family have chosen to stay close to their parents, while my wife and I moved to a suburb of the city to have more space. The list can go on and on.

But what are the financial costs of being so scattered? Forget housing and wages, because I think that adjusts – usually – with the general cost of living in an area. I make more in New York than I would in Chicago, or in Lexington, Kentucky, but my costs are substantially higher, too.

My family goes back and forth to my in-laws on a regular basis. The trip takes a little more than an hour both ways, and with tolls and wear and tear on the car I figure a trip costs $25 or so, twice a month. No big deal. Going to visit my side of the family, however, is expensive. Flights to visit my grandparents are usually no cheaper than $250 per person. Right now Little Buddy flies for free, but soon he’ll have to have a ticket too. Then there’s parking, tolls and all the various to-and-from-the-airport costs, not to mention a hotel on arrival. I estimate a recent four-day trip probably cost over $1600 for the three of us to fly to see my grandparents:

  • $200 for meals
  • $700 for the hotel
  • $30 for tolls
  • $0 for parking since my in-laws drove us to the airport, but it would have been $100
  • $600 for the flight (fortunately we had vouchers for $250 of that, so a net $350)
  • $100 for other miscellaneous costs – food for Little Buddy once there, etc.

$1600 is no small amount of money. That’s almost half of what I put in my Roth IRA this year. Now imagine visiting people in more than two or three locations; the cost becomes prohibitive. Driving to visit my brother and parents is cheaper, although with gas prices and tolls I would guess it probably costs more than $100 each way in total, plus other expenses – a hotel if we don’t want to crowd them, and so on. We tried flying, but that experience was far more expensive, even with cheaper tickets ($125 apiece) and very unpleasant due to the weather.

So if I visit everyone in my family once a year and my wife’s family once a month, you’re looking at several thousands per year just in ‘visiting’ expenses. Since being close to your family and friends is a good indicator of your overall happiness I don’t have “never visit” as a solution. So how do you get around it?

  1. Don’t always visit family for holidays. I know everyone likes to be around family at Christmas or Passover or Arbor Day, but typically airlines charge more, hotels charge more and the travel experience will inevitably be worse due to crowding. Consider visiting near the holidays.
  2. Gather. Try not to visit one set of relatives one month, then one the next. Try to get people to agree to family reunions.
  3. Stay on the lookout for travel bargains. I found a cheap resort option one weekend that was halfway between my parents and me, and it was a nice way to spend a weekend without spending nearly as much money as the resort usually charged. I try to keep an eye out for airline bargains, although in a surprisingly noncompetitive market like New York they are few and far between (Continental dominates the routes I fly to visit family, and doesn’t give much on prices).

It’s certainly something we think about a lot, but with family scattered around it’s harder to move closer to some without moving farther from others.  So for now, unfortunately, there will remain a space between us.