Can I Afford a House, Car, and Vacation?

A guide to deciding if it’s a good time to buy these big-ticket items, along with common mistakes.

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Common mistakes:

1. Failing to maintain it properly. Maintenance isn't free, but it's worth it, says Ulrich, because it helps cars retain their value. "Make the kids clean up after themselves, get it detailed every season, and stay on top of maintenance schedules," she says. That way, you'll get more money when and if you trade it in, and you'll save on repair costs down the road.

2. Losing at the dealership. After your initial meeting with the salesperson, walk away to give yourself time to think, says Sternal. Car salespeople are notorious for using various methods to get people to commit to purchasing. Patient buyers are more likely to come out ahead. By leaving the showroom, you'll be able to think without any pressure and you might even get a call with a better deal. Also, he recommends researching your financing options ahead of time so you don't have to accept the terms offered by the dealership. Cleaning up your credit report in advance—by getting rid of errors that are dragging down your score—can also help you score a better interest rate.

3. Ignoring gas and maintenance. These costs depend on the type of car as well as your lifestyle; choosing a fuel-efficient vehicle with a reputation for quality can help minimize them. Car insurance is another big factor; consider shopping around to get the best deal.

[See 50 Ways to Improve Your Finances in 2011.]

Can I afford a vacation?

Factors to consider: "Travel is a wonderful way to boost happiness. We savor the anticipation, and then we savor the memories afterwards," says Vanderkam. To avoid also savoring credit card bills, she recommends saving up before the trip to make sure it fits into your overall financial picture. "You don't want those memories spoiled by debt," she says. You might also be able to find other creative ways to cut costs, such as asking for relatives' frequent flier miles as a gift, or staying with friends in foreign cities.

Torabi suggests putting aside 2 to 3 percent of your take-home pay for an annual vacation, because even though it's discretionary, it can be money well-spent.

The hidden costs: In addition to basic costs such as airfare and hotel accommodations, Ulrich recommends factoring in an additional 25 or 50 percent of your overall budget for food, drink, and local transportation. She recommends doing as much advance research as possible to make sure you're getting the best deal and aren't surprised by unexpected expenses. Entrepreneurs face the added cost of losing out on income while they are away.

Common mistakes:

1. Charging it. Thakor says that if you can't afford to pay for your vacation in cash, don't take it. "A vacation is a luxury," which means it doesn't belong on your credit card, she says.

2. Not planning ahead. This advice is aimed especially at self-employed people who don't automatically earn vacation days. "The trick is to plan it as soon as humanly possible, even a year or more ahead of time, so you can save for it and also make sure your projects and clients are prepared," says Michelle Goodman, author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide.

3. Forgetting to give yourself a time cushion. Goodman recommends leaving a day after you return home to catch up on e-mail, errands, and other administrative details that get ignored when you're away. Some people even tell clients they're returning a day later than they actually are, to give themselves this buffer.

Bottom line: Big purchases carry hidden costs—but also big rewards. Knowing what you're getting into before parting with your cash can help you avoid costly mistakes.

Kimberly Palmer (@alphaconsumer) is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.