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The first thing I do when I return from vacation is start planning my next one. It doesn’t matter if it’s a weekend visit to my parents’ house or a weeklong beach trip, I like having something to look forward to. Anticipation can be the best part of the vacation. The worst part of the vacation is usually having to pay for it.

Vacations may seem like a luxury, but research shows taking time away from work makes us better employees and keeps us healthier. Sometimes the time between vacations can be excruciatingly long, and it’s not always possible to know when you’ll be able to afford one. But you can start dreaming and start saving. Here are three steps that can make saving for a vacation much easier.

1. Create a Vacation Fund

Earmark money specifically as vacation money. It can be a dollar a day, a dollar a week or a dollar a month. Just make sure you are setting it aside for this purpose. If you put the money in a general savings account or just leave it in your checking account (or pocket!), it can be too easy to spend it on something else. If you truly prioritize your vacation (and that is not always a possibility in a tough economy), you have to take action to make sure it happens. You can set up an automatic deposit or just keep a jar in your bedroom. Either way, you are working to make your next vacation a reality. Keep the money separate so it doesn’t get spent on other things. You want to go out to dinner but the only money available is in your vacation fund? You can eat in tonight.

If you already have a vacation place/time in mind, you can price it out and then work backward. If you have a year to save the $2,000 you need, you need to start saving $167 a month. If that’s not realistic, maybe you can put the vacation off for a year and put $84 a month in the vacation fund. (The bonus is if it is in an interest-earning account, you may even have a little extra money when vacation time comes.)

2. Take to the Web

Looking for deals well in advance can help you save some serious money. You can research travel deals for buying hotel and airfare bundles or booking excursions ahead of time for cruises. You can also find great last-minute deals on vacations if you can be flexible on when and where you go. But you can use the Web in another way to help you save for vacation.

Put the word out that you are thinking about your next vacation. Ask your Facebook friends what their favorite vacation was, where they stayed and what they paid. Sometimes this knowledge can help you negotiate a better deal from a hotel. Plus, discussing your vacation with others will help you stay motivated to save for it!

3. Ask for Help

On that note, getting the word out about your vacation dreams/desires can actually help you pay for it. Or you can directly ask for help saving for your vacation. The holidays just passed, but you can ask for birthday, graduation and holiday gifts to be donations to your vacation fund. You may be surprised how successful this can be — some people may even have airline miles, credit card points or time share points that they may be willing to pass on to you. Both those items often have expiration dates and if the person who has them can’t use them in time, he or she might be happy to see you use them. Also, a friend may have a relative who is renting out a home or looking for a home swap. These can seriously reduce the cost of your vacation.

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