Small Cabin in the Woods

Why You Don’t Need A Cabin Up North (or do you?)

While walking the halls at work just before the July 4th holiday weekend, I overhead more than a few colleagues talking about “going to the cabin.” Here in Minnesota, it’s not uncommon for families to own a second property “up north” or on the lake, specifically for the purpose of weekend getaways in the summertime. The idea of owning our own little cabin getaway has had its appeal, but pesky opportunity costs always seem to get in the way.

The season for enjoying a cabin here in the northern boundaries of the Midwest is pretty narrow: essentially from Memorial weekend to Labor Day weekend. With that in mind, 122,000 Minnesotan cabin owners squeeze in an average of 55 days a year to enjoy a little rustic decompression. Long gone are the days of the truly rustic cabin with no running water or attached toilet. Nowadays, buyers are demanding $250-$500K year-round new build homes as “cabins.” Hedonic Adaptation Alert!

A tradition getting out of hand

With a narrow season limited to summertime weekends, northbound highways out of the Twin Cities get absolutely slammed on Fridays and Sundays. Weather can be unpredictable. Storms, rain, clouds, and high heat and humidity can put a dent in the experience. Nevertheless, the faithful continue on with a tradition that spans generations. Minnesotans hold onto their cabins for a very long time (nearly 25 years on average) relative to their primary residences.

Growing up, we were fortunate to have two sets of grandparents with lake homes to visit. I know firsthand the appeal of getting away to the lake. If some of your favorite memories from childhood are from those settings, it’s only natural to want to recreate those memories into adulthood. The problem for an aspiring early retiree is how to recreate those memories without blowing up the balance sheet.

What about those memories we’re trying to recreate?

What is so magical about the rustic cabin nestled among pines near a quiet lake up north? For a kid, the list might include endless exploration into the woods, water sports, fishing, campfires, playing cards, building sand castles, and more. All of this is enhanced by being surrounded by parents in their best moods being away from work. Hard to beat? You bet it is.

As a grown up, you get to recreate a lot of those activities with your own family. You get the thrill of watching your kids stay up on water skis the first time, or catch a keeper off the end of the dock. You can invite friends and their families to enjoy the experience. Someone inevitably gets sunburned and has to spend a day inside. A racoon will knock over the trash can and wake everyone up at 3AM, but it’s all good fodder for future memories about “that time we all went up north over 4th of July 2017.”

If the nostalgia from these experiences growing up, or simply the idea of it has you aching for a place up north of your own, take heart. There are plenty of options for creating the experience that don’t involve owning very own multi-generational cabin.

Cubert Family
That little guy on the left dreamed of starting his own blog one day…

Save your stash – Do these instead:

  1. Go Tent Camping. Easy enough and low cost. Allows you to explore. You’re not anchored down to the same place. It is less cozy, and camping spots can be hard to come by without advanced reservations.
  2. Go RV Camping. A big upgrade on the cozy factor, but you lose on the financial side of the equation. Hold off on this option until you’ve reached financial independence.
  3. Rent a Cabin. With VRBO and AirBNB you’ve got access to countless lakes and home styles. The problem is that the better the location, the pricier the rental. There’s also no guarantee you’ll get what you want if you wait too long to reserve. And often, summertime rentals require a full week when all you might want is a weekend. I’d recommend setting aside some vacation dollars for a week up north while stashing away for your early retirement. Just be sure to book well in advance!
  4. Make Friends With Cabin Owners! This is the golden ticket. If you have friends with a place up north and they want your company, make every effort to show your appreciation and not wear out your welcome. Bring the meats, bring the booze, and for God’s sake, take good care of the place.
  5. Staycation? If you just can’t get away for whatever reason, seek out nearby public beaches and boat rentals, head to a minor league ball-game, or fire up a back yard barbecue. No reason to sulk when half your neighbors are gone to the lake.

A $250-$500K second home away from home is an indulgence.

Even a modest cabin or condo up north can put a huge dent in any plans to gain an early exit from your cube. That’s not even including the requisite power boat and jet skis!

Proceed with caution. Find ways to get up north with family and friends and build memories. Consider what you’d rather be doing at 55: chomping at the bit to get out of your cube and onto the clogged highway up north on a Friday afternoon, or, at 45 already retired, enjoying the outdoors each and every day, planning another six week cross-country road trip.


Comments 14

  1. Excellent point! You’d reaaaally have to think about whether the glamor of owning a family cabin is worth the extra years of your life spent working. It’s not worth it in my opinion (unless you want to live full-time in said cabin). Why not just camp in a tent and really experience the outdoors? Actually, when I was a kid, my dad would rent a cabin for $75 for an entire weekend. No long-term commitments, just fun. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Mrs. Pincher! I certainly wouldn’t miss any “glamor” effect. I simply yearn for a place where you’re away from it all and can have family and friends there to enjoy letting the hair down with you. And hey, $75 for an entire weekend cabin rental? Nice. Anymore, you need a full week’s commitment and a base of $1,000 (goes way up from there)

  2. I have great memories of going to the cabin up in Northern Minnesota for 18+ years when growing up. At the time our family only rented several cabins in a family run resort and the entire family would go up for an entire week. We didn’t own the cabins, but we felt like we did since we were there EVERY year. A short while after I went to college the resort was sold off piecemeal to individual cabin owners, and we weren’t able to return.

    When I got married to my wife her parents owned a beautiful home (that they called a cabin) on a lake in Hayward, Wisconsin. That place was great, but the upkeep on the home was torturous, especially when they weren’t able to go there more than 3-4 weeks a year. In the end they sold the cabin – right before we had our son. We missed out on bringing him there to create memories.

    So now I find myself longing for that cabin experience with my son, but not currently knowing anyone with a good cabin nearby that we can borrow or rent. We’ve been up north a few times renting condos and cabins, but haven’t found one we’d like to return to. I’ve found myself looking at cheap cabins on the same lake we used to go to when I was a child, trying to figure out if we could make it work.

    At this point I think we’re better off just renting as the work associated with a cabin is almost more than it’s worth -but it’s hard when so many wonderful memories were made at the lake growing up. Great post!

    1. Thanks so much, Peter. It sounds like we’re in the same boat (pardon the weak pun!) I had a similar experience growing up in Michigan with access to family cottages. Good friends here in Minnesota would invite us up to Madeline Island before that property had to be sold. Now with twins at pre-school age, we’d love to find “something” for our summer getaways as well – and likely will end up renting.

  3. I’ve thought of all those things: a place in the sun, a cabin on a lake, a boat to explore the many islands around home, an RV to explore the continent. If only the acquisition costs were all but each of those choices has ongoing expenses in licensing, upkeep, gas, maintenance, insurance. Plus your time and aggravation to arrange all those things. I’ve almost pulled the switch a few times but so far I’ve been persuaded that renting means someone else has all the additional expense and headaches.

    1. I hear you, K. You know, there’s a very insightful read (or two) on a blog I follow, “Can I Retire Yet?” Check it out – some very good tips on RVs and how to manage/control the costs. Good luck, and thanks for stopping by!

    1. Hey Steve- thanks for your comment. Are you a cabin owner I take it? I’m all for owning a second home but my advice is to make sure you can own it debt free and not at the expense of being strung to the desk until 67. We go for renting at this stage.

  4. You left out the best alternative to owning a cabin a couple hours away, probably because it’s too obvious.

    Live where the cabins are!

    It can be tough if you’re not able to work where the cabins are, but my wife and I have our primary home in lake country close to my family and a cabin where we used to live, on a lake close to her family.


  5. Nice one, enjoyed that post. I am aiming to build myself a cabin here in Ireland (as economically as I can) and renting out my other ‘real’ properties.

    I LOVED the last paragraph of this post. Build memories, get outdoors, and be retired at 45. Yes, please sir! 😉

    1. Hey there, James! Glad you liked that one. I needed to write that up before I got depressed about another weekend stuck in the city on a beautiful summer weekend. Can’t wait to get that Airbnb up and running in Michigan…

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