Photo by Artem Bali on Unsplash

The holidays are a money vacuum. Between gift shopping, shipping fees, and other spread-good-cheer expenses, you've busted your budget without spending a dime on yourself. (Okay, maybe there were a few things you purchased for yourself, because sales!). The bottom line is that you've been working around the clock the past year, paying your dues at your day job and making that side hustle happen on nights and weekends, only to see your hard-earned cash melt away by the time the holidays come along. All you want for Christmas is the promise of a real vacation. You need it. You deserve it. You can't possibly afford it. Or can you?

It is possible to get away on even the most meager budget. All it takes is a little research, some planning, and a dash of creativity. In fact, you might even save money with a little luck. Consider this post your holiday present from us: We're giving you the tools to plan the getaway you thought you couldn't afford, because it's been a hell of a year and you could really use a vacation.

Travel Rewards and Points

Wise Bread

You may already have a credit card that delivers airline miles or points towards travel. If you do, tally up how much you've got to play with and whether there are ways to double your points through purchasing from specific retailers or at specific times during the billing cycle.

If you don't have a travel rewards card, Nerdwallet has a handy breakdown of the best options this year. They also have some tips for choosing the right card for your budget and making the most of it depending on when you're looking to travel. For example, if you choose a card with a big sign-up bonus that promises mega-travel rewards points once you spend an initial amount of money in the first few months, you could be earning while you're purchasing holiday gifts. So consider signing up when you're shopping the most (aka right now).

You also should consider which type of card is right for you. "Travel credit cards fall into two basic categories: co-branded cards and general travel cards," according to Nerdwallet. "Co-branded cards carry the name of an airline or hotel chain, and the rewards you earn are redeemable only with that airline or hotel. If you regularly fly one airline or stay at one hotel chain, they can be a great choice. They also offer perks such as free checked bags or hotel upgrades. General travel cards offer more flexibility. Their rewards come as points that you can redeem for any travel expense, or even transfer to airline and hotel loyalty programs." Check out your options here and start racking up those miles.

Last Minute Deals

Tours & Hotels

So you've blocked out vacation time, but you're too broke to book travel. There are apps for that. At Fareness you can plug in your dates and current location, and retrieve a list of the cheapest flights to various destinations. If you're hankering for an ocean view, icruise offers a ton of last-minute deals on cruise-ships looking to fill up empty rooms at bargain rates. (Four nights on Carnival for $479? Pretty solid.) Expedia also has a killer last-minute travel section where you can find deals up to 70 percent off. If you want to save even more money, checkout iCarpool and take a roadtrip with a new friend.

Timing is everything

There are some rules of thumb when it comes to booking airfare—at 5am and on Sundays you're likely to find the cheapest rates, according to Skyscanner. But wait, the app Hopper does the work for you, monitoring flights to your destination and alerting you when the airfare is lowest.

Hotel Mega-Discounts

If your credit card offers a flexible points plan, you may be able to use those points on hotel rooms. Some cards also have deals with resort chains to provide discounts on booking or double the rewards when you book the room so you can put those points towards your flight. If your eyes are crossing, here's another option: check Groupon Getaways. The site offers package deals around the world for an average 50 to 70 percent off. Many of these deals include meals, tours, or other perks that will save you extra bucks.

Free Boarding

Maybe you're not in the position to look for a deal of any kind. Maybe you need a place to stay that's 100 percent free AND doesn't suck. We're here for you. Your first option is to consider a house swap. Sites like HomeExchange and GuestToGuest connect you with others both nationally and internationally looking to do home exchanges. If you want to avoid paying any signup fees, the DIY version is called social media. Post some pics of your pad and ask your community if anyone out of town is interested in a swap. You can also AirBnB your pad (depending on the laws in your state) and earn enough to put the money towards your vacation—and even save some bucks too. If loaning out your home isn't an option, there's still hope. Sites like Housesitter and apps like Couchsurfing offer members an array of getaways that cost you zilch. If you're a pet lover, you can also offer your services on Petsit or to your pals on social media. The holidays are an optimal time for this, with so many people leaving town. You might even find yourself on a sweet staycation in your hometown—far, far away from your roommates and your messy bedroom. You're welcome.

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I thought I had a pretty good handle on my finances out of school. I worked several jobs while attending university and had little to no problem managing my income. However, once I graduated, I realized how much more complicated personal accounting could really be.

There were so many variables I needed to keep track of. Biweekly bills, monthly charges, and general necessities amounted to a heap of confusing numbers that were often impossible to decipher. The funniest part was that I was actually trying to do this by hand (I don't know what I was trying to prove to myself, either).

After messing up for the 17th time, I decided to give Microsoft Excel a shot. I used Excel a bit in school and I knew all the big-wig finance people used it, so what could I possibly have to lose? The answer is about six hours of my precious time. Excel isn't much of an improvement over handwriting and it's still dependent on the user to manually input all of the information. It's like doing everything by hand with the slightest help, meaning that it still required a tremendous amount of time and concentration. Well that was all for nothing, I guess.

It's sort of funny. I was certain that I could manage my personal finances with ease, when it's practically a full-time job. I was already stressed out enough with my first job and I knew I didn't have enough time to give my finances the attention it deserved.

That's why I decided to try out a budgeting app. My best friend told me that he uses an app called Truebill to manage his finances. "What does it even mean to manage your finances?" I asked him. He told me that Truebill was the personal financial assistant I wished I could have. It could aggregate all of my account information into one place and give me specific insights and actions.

I loved the idea of having full control over my finances, especially during a time of financial uncertainty, and I realized that Truebill would be the easiest way to accomplish this. The user interface is incredibly simple and intuitive, so it doesn't even feel like a finance app! Truebill offers a multitude of features, with their most popular being the ability to cancel subscriptions with the press of a button.

Okay, I had no idea how many subscriptions I was still subscribed to. In fact, I wasn't even using a quarter of the subscription services I was signed up for. Subscription boxes, streaming services, my old gym, and even an old subscription to my favorite magazine--it was all there and I was livid. How could I let myself waste all of this money and how did I never catch this? Thank goodness for Truebill.

Truebill also offers bill negotiations. There is a 40% fee based on how much you save and Truebill even claims that there is an 85% chance that they'll be able to lower your bill once a negotiation is requested. Why wouldn't I take them up on this? There was zero risk and I would only have to pay once my bill was lowered (which means that I would be saving money regardless).

More standard features of Truebill include the ability to generate a credit report on-demand and even request a pay advance. I only used the pay advance feature once when I wanted to buy a gift for my mom, but didn't have enough cash in hand and Truebill automatically reimbursed itself when I got my next paycheck.

The credit report is another fantastic feature and practically taught me what good credit meant. Truebill's credit report basically shows you which financial decisions have the most significant impact on your credit score and ways that you can improve your credit month-over-month. I've never had such control over my credit and it feels good.

I'll be the first to admit that I was extremely naive coming out of school. I figured that as long as I was attentive, I could manage my finances with ease. We manage money to some extent throughout our entire lives, but once you're thrown out on your own, it's a completely different story. With Truebill, I've finally been able to take control over my finances and stay on top of all of my responsibilities.

Update: Our friends at Truebill are extending a special offer to our readers! Follow this link to sign-up for Truebill.

My buddies and I always try to make it out to a game, but we never really care which one we end up at. Obviously we have our favorite sports and teams, but it was rarely about what game we went to or who we saw playing. It was about watching the game live.

In the early months of lockdown, all we had was Korean baseball, and trust me, we loved it. The only issue was, none of us had any idea what the commentators were saying. Even then, a few of my friends weren't huge fans of baseball. They were into sports like football and basketball, ones that moved at a quicker pace with less down-time in between plays.

We decided to see if there were any other events going down and came across horse racing. Yes, horse racing. It was perfect--short, fast-paced, and most importantly, an opportunity for betting.

I had never really considered watching a horse race any time other than the Belmont Stakes, but the prospects of the sport seemed exhilarating. Even better, with horse racing we knew we could still recreate the atmosphere of a race track. Salty snacks? Check. Stale beer? Check. A simple and easy way to bet? Check.

One quick Google search later, we came across TVG, powered by FanDuel. It's an online betting platform that takes you right to the heart of the action. We were a little apprehensive about using a mobile app to place our bets, but TVG's ability to bet on live horse races from all over the world was too good to pass up.

Here are 5 reasons why we are obsessed with horse racing thanks to TVG:

1. Betting has never been easier

Use your phone or computer to watch and bet on live horse races in real-time. TVG offers a bunch of features to make betting even simpler--live odds and handicapping tips leverage recent learnings to help you make your best bet. Not to mention, TVG's exclusive race content and wagering guide offers an under-the-hood look into the strategy behind horse race betting.

2. The biggest selection of horse races out there

If you're looking to drop a little dough on a horse race, chances are your best option is your local race track. But watching the same few horses races over and over again isn't the most exciting thing. With TVG you have access to over 150 tracks worldwide with races happening consistently throughout the day.

3. Get a generous sign-up offer when you place your first bet

Once you register your account, you will be eligible for a $200 risk-free bet. All you have to do is place your first bet and you're covered. If you happen to lose, TVG will insure you for up to $200 as a sort of wagering credit. I may have been a little trigger happy when placing my first bet, so having this insurance was a great perk. There are also a bunch of promotional offers available year-round.

4. Making deposits and cashing out at the touch of button

With a ton of payment options such as PayPal, BetCash, debit/credit, wire transfers, and other third-party services, making a deposit is a breeze. But what about the payout? Depending on your deposit method, your withdrawal will be available in a few days. No more waiting in-line to collect your winnings!

5. Watching live races with your friends while betting is exhilarating

Even when we were watching Korean baseball, Zoom calls with my friends were a little dull.

With TVG, we haven't had this sort of fun in months! Every weekend we'll turn on a race and throw our bets in. After a few races, and quite a few drinks, we'll tally up our winnings to see who won the most! Sometimes it's not even about making money, but just having a good time.

TVG is the perfect way to add a little excitement to an otherwise mundane afternoon. It introduced me to the world of horse racing, a sport I never would have considered otherwise.

The races just keep ramping up and thanks to TVG, I can always get in on the fun.

UPDATE: The biggest derby in horse racing is THIS WEEKEND. Get in on the action with your $200 risk-free bet!

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