It’s too early to know whether Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes will join Hollywood’s group of amicable ex’s who happily vacation together with their kids. When tabloids run photos of Bruce and Demi — or any other famously divorced couple — reuniting in some exotic location, it kind of stops me in my tracks. If my marriage didn’t go as planned, would I ever pack my bags and go on a trip with my ex and his new family? My former co-worker Susan did, and it was a bit of a disaster. But the problems weren’t due to family squabbles or too much togetherness — it was the money.
Right about now you may be wondering: is this really a common practice? According to friends and a few articles I’ve read — yes! Susan isn’t the only non-celebrity vacationing with her ex. As blended families become more commonplace, many dynamics are changing, creating a new set of norms, including how to handle financial arrangements.
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Which brings me to Susan and her tumultuous trip. After the divorce, she remained single while her former spouse remarried. A decade later, Susan’s well-meaning ex-husband approached her with an interesting proposition: a resort vacation for their two kids (now teenagers) with both of their families. Was she expecting it to be her dream vacation? No. But she was on good terms with him and thought it would be the right decision for the kids, so she said yes.
Susan and her ex agreed beforehand that they would split all the expenses for their kids and that he would cover the costs for his wife and son. It seemed simple enough — until they all arrived at the resort and the financial plan got really complicated really fast. Susan had underestimated the pressure she’d face when her kids wanted to join their stepbrother in pricier activities than she’d had in mind. She had also underestimated the resentment she’d feel when her ex and his wife wanted to take the kids out for expensive dinners that she’d agreed to split. It was just like the old days when she and her ex disagreed on how much to spend, and her budget took the hit.
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Looking back on it, Susan says the vacation wasn’t all bad. Her kids had a wonderful time and truly appreciated getting to share a special trip with both of their parents, and she even admits she had a little fun too. But the trip would have been smoother if she had asked herself a few vital questions before saying yes to a blended-family vacation:
Can you really afford this? Before you set off, alone or with your kids and ex-spouse in tow, be sure you’ve investigated what’s included and what isn’t. Resorts typically offer lots of excursions, often at a premium. Investigate the hidden costs of vacationing before you go and figure out if you’ve saved enough. If the answer is yes, it’s essential that you have a budget in mind before you pack up the car or get on a plane. Sightseeing and shopping are part of what makes travel fun, but they can easily get out of control. When traveling with children, be sure they also know what to expect. Breakfast at the hotel? Treats at the pool? Entertainment options? If the kids are old enough, consider including them in some of the planning, or set aside part of your travel budget for discretionary spending. As Susan learned, it is very hard to say “no” when numerous attractions are right outside your window.
Will your money styles clash? Think back to your marriage. Did you and your ex-spouse disagree about money? If there was financial friction back then, a shared vacation may open some old wounds. Were you a casual spender while your ex was tight with every dime? Or vice versa? If your former spouse is remarried, do you know the new partner’s money style? Even if you’ve thought through these questions — as Susan had — do you have a plan for resolving the inevitable conflicts? For your children’s sake (and for your own sanity), this last part is perhaps the most important.
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Can you handle this emotionally? Some of Hollywood’s former couples appear to have a good time vacationing together. This type of blended trip could be great for the kids, but you need to consider your own feelings first. If there’s too much bitterness or resentment before you leave, chances are it won’t get better wherever you go on vacation. Be honest with yourself and your ex-spouse, emotionally and financially. After all, the real purpose of a family vacation is to relax and have fun.
De Baca is vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial.