Despite all the photos of tropical places, infinity pools and beautiful mid-week brunches you see on social media, Americans aren’t actually taking much time away from work. In fact, over the past 15 years, the amount of paid time off we’ve taken has declined, according to Project: Time Off, a recent survey commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association.
Over half of Americans (55%) reported that they did not use all of their employer-offered vacation days in 2015. And since nearly a third of those vacation days don’t roll into the next year, Americans essentially forfeited over $64 billion in benefits, leaving a huge part of their compensation package on the table.
You might pass on taking your personal days for a lot of reasons, like being overwhelmed at work, or feeling like a vacation is financially out of reach. But you don’t need a cash windfall to reclaim your time off. Here are five creative and cost-effective ways to use your PTO.
1. Schedule quality time with your kids.
Tara Manthey, a mom of two in Denver, has a demanding job working as the director of communications for a nonprofit organization. “I line up my PTO with their school breaks to cut down on the costs of day camps — and to make sure I use it throughout the year,” she says. She and her kids go camping, to museums, or sometimes just unwind at home.
“I’ve found a much better work-life balance in this rhythm because I ‘force’ myself to take that time off by not arranging for other child care. If I didn’t line it up so early in [the] year I know work projects would take it over,” Manthey explains.
2. Be a tourist in your town.
Take the opportunity to rediscover why you love where you live. Explore museums and art galleries you drive or walk past daily, make a reservation for weekday brunch at a restaurant you can’t always get to or take a walking tour of a new part of town. National Geographic even suggests booking a hotel for a night in your own city. You can see your home through new eyes, and reap the benefits of a vacation without the hassle and expense of traveling far.
3. Take off to give back.
Squeezing volunteer time into an already tight schedule can be tough. Devote your unused PTO to the causes you support. Research shows that volunteering offers a myriad of benefits, including a revitalized feeling that you do have time to spare. Devote a paid day off each quarter to a favorite nonprofit organization or cause to improve the lives of others and reconnect with your own values.
4. Explore a home swap.
Traveling isn’t cheap. But what if you could eliminate your lodging costs? Home exchange programs let you do just that by swapping homes with families in other towns, states or countries. Sites like HomeExchange.com provide guidelines to facilitate the process and make it safer. If staying in a stranger’s home isn’t for you, try swapping houses with relatives or friends who live in a place you’d like to visit.
5. Tackle your to-do list.
We all have projects that never seem to get done, like finally organizing that box of family photos, cleaning out the basement or redecorating. Take advantage of your PTO to check off pressing to-dos, while still earning your salary. You could end up saving money on home improvements, tap into your creative side or, at the very least, complete those projects that have been nagging at you for years.
If the pressures of work are preventing you from taking the time off that you’ve earned, you’re not alone. But it’s worth finding new and creative ways to spend your PTO days. You’ll return to work feeling refreshed and ready to tackle whatever your career throws at you next.
Learn more about Project: Time Off and their latest research in, “The State of American Vacation: How Vacation Became a Casualty of Our Work Culture”.