Most people think a year of full-time travel is simply not possible without winning the lottery or inheriting a fortune. Outside of one guy I met in Vietnam who really was traveling off the windfall from a long-lost uncle, this is simply not the case of the hundreds of people I have met on my extensive travels. Through trial and error, lots of luck and even more hard work, I’ve found a way to build a life of travel and adventure. This is not a how-to post or a complete guide or any sort of groundbreaking information, it’s just one girl’s story of making it work.
So… how do I afford it?
This is the number one question I get about my travels, in both reader emails and in real life from friends and curious acquaintances.
I estimate I spent about $16,000 for my first year of travel (minus the cruise, which was generously sponsored by my mother). I could have spent a lot less and I could have spent a lot more, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. And now that I’ve found my footing a bit in the digital work world, I hope that in the coming year I’ll have to dip into my savings less and less to pay for my travels… after all, those reserves will only last so long. I made this past year work through a combination of picking up jobs on the road and saving like a madwoman beforehand, hence this post’s two sections.
Saving Before You Go
Step 1: Get a job. Get another one. Forgo sleep if necessary.
So, working along the way was always part of my plan. But I knew that it would take me a while to get that off the ground, and I also knew I wanted a safety net. Luckily I have always enjoyed working and I’ve had a job, sometimes multiple, since I was fourteen. None were high earning, but I’ve worked at an arts camp, as a nanny, as a production assistant at a graphic design studio, at an upscale boutique… the list goes on. Basically, I’ve taken advantage of every spare moment in my schedule to earn a few bucks.
Step 2: Stop buying crap. Sell the crap you have.
My first trip to Thailand when I was nineteen changed my life. I came back with a clear realization of what I wanted for my future and how to get it. One major part of this was breaking my budget shopping habit (an ongoing journey!). After spending a summer living out of a backpack and seeing firsthand how little I need to be happy, it was a wake up call that I was trying and failing to buy my happiness with things. My parents had imparted on me their Midwestern frugality, so I had never been one chasing designer brands or caring about labels. But I was addicted to bargains and to the act of shopping… and dozens of $20 purchases add up to a bursting closet and an empty wallet. So, I started on a two-part strategy that involved selling off old things that were becoming a physical burden and trying not to add anything else to the mix. Ebay, Craigslist and Amazon became three of my closest friends in the year before I departed on my big trip, and I made over $2,000 selling stuff that quite frankly wasn’t very valuable in the first place (like I said, I was a bargain shopping addict rather than a designer one).
Step 3: Use blogs and books as a daily motivator towards your goal.
Two systems really helped take me from simply a practical person (someone who works more and buys less) to a rabid saver. One, I read personal finance books or blogs daily. Taking ten minutes to read a passage from The Joy of Less or a blog post at The Simple Dollar really helped me each day to refocus and remember my goal. I was like a reformed alcoholic going to meetings.
Step 4: Record your income and spending.
Second, I recorded every purchase in a fairly obsessive compulsive fashion. I had a little notebook that I carried around and listed my transactions down to the cent, much to the amusement of my saner friends. At the end of each month I would sit down with Mint and balance my notebook against my bank account balances. I was rarely off by more than $10 and let me tell you, those ten dollars drove me crazy. Write down every single transaction you make. This is the number one most important piece of advice I give people about saving for travel! Recording your income and purchases keeps you accountable and makes you hyper-aware of your goal and the steps you are taking to achieve it.
. . . .
In the end, everyone has to find their own system. Those four steps worked for me. My biggest secret is that I wanted it. I wanted it so badly. I wanted it enough to walk away from the sale rack at H&M, to forgo fancy gift exchanges with my then-boyfriend (we always put a small dollar amount cap on gifts at Christmas and birthdays) and to take on another babysitting gig rather than hit happy hour with my friends. I still traveled and I splurged occasionally on dinner with friends and other indulgences, but I never wavered from my goal.
I’m often asked if my parents fund my travels. The answer is no — I haven’t gotten an allowance since long before I moved out from under their roof! However (dirty little travel secret alert!) I received a significant merit-based scholarship all four years of university and worked hard to keep qualifying for it. In gratitude and in generosity, my parents gave me a gift upon graduation; a small percentage of what they had saved on tuition bills thanks to my scholarship. It has provided me with a great safety net and helped me start my online business. I’m well aware that admitting your parents have helped you financially in some way is street-cred suicide in the blogosphere, but I’m all about keeping it real and recognizing the privileges that have gotten me where I am today.
Stretching dollars in the Cayman Islands
Earning on the road
I left home with enough money to travel frugally for a year. But I didn’t want to travel for a year – I wanted to travel forever. So I knew I’d have to work on the go. And work I did — in the past year I’ve called myself a freelance designer, freelance writer and editor, underwater videographer, bartender, flyer girl, babysitter, and oh yeah, a blogger.
When I kicked off my year in the UK and Europe I was coasting off my savings, and I’m the first to admit it was super stressful. Ibiza isn’t such a party when you’re having a meltdown over the cover charge to Space and Pacha. When I got to Thailand I started work immediately, and while I wasn’t earning big bucks in Thai baht, it did offset the cost of my living. In October I made my first advertising dollar off this website. I was thrilled, even though the pay was pitiful. It wasn’t until March that I started making a workable wage off this baby blog of mine.
So, when I say, “workable wage,” we’re talking below-poverty-level income in the US. But here’s the thing: I have no long term expenses nor debt haunting me. No mortgage, no student loans, and no rent/bills to pay each month (ah, the benefits of homelessness). I also forgo fancy clothes and anything with a flashy brand name. Do I feel a bit embarrassed sometimes to be wearing fading jeans that I bought in high school and scruffed up heels from Payless to a nice dinner with fashionable friends, now that I’m back in New York? Of course. But I remind myself of my priorities, and then try to appear in photos solely from the neck up. So, by having minimal fixed expenses, fairly frugal tastes, and traveling slowly through primarily low-budget destinations, I’m able to stretch a tiny income to cover a rich life of adventure.
But let’s get into more details regarding earning on the road. My blog is my main income earner. Second to that is freelance work I do writing, editing, and graphic designing. I landed most of those jobs via connections I made working in New York City before I took off traveling. I realize that not everyone has skills that can translate online, and lucky for all of us there is plenty of work to be found on location.
In the five months I spent in Thailand over the year I had some pretty hilarious experiences trying out a variety of jobs, from the good (my true passion, underwater videography), to the bad (shocker, bartending wasn’t the glamorous career I was expecting) to the ugly (nothing beats the indignity of handing out flyers for the equivalent of three dollars an hour or babysitting for the equivalent of two). Did each job I worked fulfill me creatively, utilize my expensive college degree or compensate me fairly? Heck no. Did I meet amazing people, laugh hysterically, and no matter what always wake up on a beautiful island in the Gulf of Thailand? Heck yes.
In Southeast Asia you can teach English or scuba diving, in Europe you can work in hostels, in Australia you can pick fruit. Sometimes you can make the equivalent of what you would make at home, sometimes you make $2 an hour. But when your rent is $75 a month, like mine was in Thailand, you can afford to work for low wages. Where there is a will, there is a well-worth-it way. It might not pay all of your expenses and in the majority of cases you won’t be saving, but it will offset your expenses and help you travel longer. This book helped open my eyes to the working-abroad world and goes into the nitty-gritty of working vises and more. Almost anyone can find a way to work abroad.
List of Resources
Work Your Way Around the World: The Globetrotter’s Bible
The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich
To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop
The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide
Smart Women Finish Rich (and other non-gender specific books in this series)
The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke
. . . . . . . . . . .
So, as I said, this was just my brief summary of how I’ve hustled to make a life of travel viable. Two thousand words may not seem brief but I haven’t even touched the surface of things like how I stretch the dollars I do have (for examples of how I spend and save my dough on the road, see my Honduras Budget Breakdown post or my posts on Saving Money on Travel Part I and Part II).
I have dozens of friends around the globe doing the same thing I’m doing, and we have had dozens of different journeys. It’s important to note that I totally recognize not everyone wants this kind of life! I value that everyone has different priorities, be it developing a rich and successful career, having a beautiful home and family, or some other path towards bliss. But for me and for the people who email me on a near-daily basis, travel is that path. This was my story of making it work. I hope for anyone out there looking to do the same that this helped a tiny bit and that you find what works for you. Good luck, I’m rooting for you!
Feel free to ask any questions in the comments!