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.
Burning through cash in Honduras
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
The Simple Dollar
Man Vs. Debt
Get Rich Slowly
I Will Teach You To Be Rich
And Then She Saved
Sell Your Crap E-Course
My Post on Downsizing
. . . . . . . . . . .
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!
Wow, right on target again. I was just pacing the room thinking about my budget and wondering how I am going to keep traveling with the $$ I have left when I decided to take a break from my panic attack and read some blogs. Spot-on advice (especially concerning writing EVERYTHING down; getrichslowly.org was another good blog that got me thru the saving process). I, too, left the US with roughly enough $$ for a year, intending to turn one year into several. Thanks for turning my panic attack around, and thanks too for that link to globetrottergirls.com–exactly what I needed (and interesting timing!).
Hey Lauren, so glad this post gave you a little boost of confidence! When I was really starting to panic about money after a summer in the UK, setting up shop on in Thailand and staying put and working for a while was just what I needed to get back on track.
I imagine for another 20 or 30 something with a travel dream this is golden advice. Well written
Thanks! I hope it gives a boost to someone… or at least stops the emails asking me how much money my parents send me each month! (Answer: Zero dollars) 🙂
Ditto what “Dad” stated!!! Safe travels!!!
Thanks Mike, I appreciate it!
Can you provide more info on how you make money on your blog? I don’t see a lot of Ads on your site so it is just not clear to me where the income is from?
Hi Keith! There isn’t really a simple answer to your question. I make money through a few different avenues on this site, one is through affiliate links (on my Gear and Products pages for example, I make money if someone buys through those links as explained in my disclaimer) and another is posts like this one, which are sponsored by advertising partners. I’m glad the ads are hard to find, I like to keep things discreet!
Thanks for the info. Great way to make a living.
It is, Keith! The game is changing all the time so I’m just trying to stay in it as long as I can!
Wonderful, informative and insightful post, Alex! Again, I take my hat off to you for following your bliss, rather than monetary wealth. Your wealth of life experience is most certainly worth more! There will always be money to be made, but you can’t save memories- they have to be lived 🙂
Thank you so much Sarah. I’m just trying to keep this ride going as long as possible… so I just need to earn enough to make that happen! 🙂
Excellent blog! I wish more young people had your street smarts about “stuff”, money, responsibility, etc… this doesn’t just apply to traveling, but to every day life! I might be able to “hire” you to help out with the WDHOF website and some email blasts if you’re interested… also, I do work with another group, Working Wardrobes (another non-profit, so funds are limited but the work is rewarding) who desperately needs a good copywriter and I can tell you really are! So let’s talk!
Thank you Bonnie! I have to give my parents credit for any street smarts I might have regarding money and possessions. They have always spent less than they earned, valued saving over buying, and not cared about having the latest and greatest…. and luckily I picked a thing or two up from them.
I’d love to possibly help out with WDHOF, let me know how I can be involved!
Great post Alex…really in depth and honest which is what we need more off in the blogging world for advice and tips on how we all did it. Love the resource sites too though sadly Mint.com isn’t available in the UK yet 🙁
Keep travelling, keep being honest and keep giving hints & tips 🙂
I learned that the hard way about Mint.com when I was trying to set up a system for Mark! I was so bummed because its made my life so easy. I’m a bit cross with them for not having a Blackberry App too… but they are a lifesaver.
I was just about to write a post like this as I’m 3 weeks from departure and 3 days to hitting the final number on my savings goal for my trip…however, yours is written much better than mine would be, so I’ll be sending readers your way 🙂
Thanks for sending your people over! I appreciate it!
Alex–this is such an incredible post–so generous of you to share the reality and the hard parts: no H&M, no sales and your money notebook. I love that you do all this and that you tell it! That is like 12 step recovery too:).
It just keeps getting better and more relevant to travelers and to women who are making lives of adventure here at home.
Thanks for the kudos Diane! While I don’t use it to the same degree anymore I still have my old money notebook and love to flip through it and see how crazy/determined I was!
ahhh money tips for traveling! You’ve won my heart girl 😉 Though I’m a bit more spend than you when I go abroad.. and unfortunately thus far have only gone to very expensive places (Hello Switzerland what the hell??)
Yeah, part of being able to travel for so long has been AVOIDING EUROPE! I mean obviously I’ve been there, but it was never on my own full dime. Iceland, Greece and Turkey were family trips that were 95% paid for by my generous mother and England and Scotland I went to to visit my then-boyfriends family and friends, so we never paid for accommodation or car rental. Ibiza I revisited last year (I went to Spain as a kid and again, it was paid for by family) and I was shocked by the prices. Europe is not a destination I will be choosing for my own solo travels anytime soon! You’ve got to pick your destinations wisely when on a budget!
Thanks for this post, Alex. Something that stood out to me was that you went to college (NYU I think I read in one of your posts) on a scholarship and that’s a major achievement. Also having graduated from NYU (nowhere near a scholarship), I know how career-driven people can be there and the fact that you decided to pursue your dreams instead of the corporate ladder says a lot. You’re not some uneducated dropout who couldn’t “cut it.” You’re pursuing what makes you happy and kicking ass in the process. So like Sarah said, hats off to u!
Actually Diane I graduated from Pratt, a fine arts school in NYC! My sister goes to NYU though, so I’m sure I’ve mentioned it around here before. Most of my friends are kicking butt in their respective creative fields and I am so very proud of them but I figured out somewhere along the way that I was going to be doing something a little crazy! Luckily its been working out for me so far.
Great tips! I did pretty much the same thing as you (except I barely had any savings when I left the US — I moved to Singapore with $700). I had very little college debt thanks to scholarships, didn’t buy into brand names (and the few pieces I do have, I bought at outlets or discount sales). I found long-term jobs to stay abroad, and jobs that were in my field as well. My “street cred suicide” secret though is that I charged all my flights to my credit card, and I’m still paying that off in increments every month.
The one thing I’d like to add is that it’s definitely possible to develop a rich and successful career while you travel too, as you and I both prove (I assume you’d like a career in diving photography, but please correct me if I’m wrong!) — bartending/teaching English/travel blogging aren’t the only job options to stay abroad!
So true, Edna. It was hard to put all my thoughts into one post since this already reached 2,000+ words but one thing I wanted to emphasize was living abroad rather than traveling constantly. Although I consider my last year a year of “travel” I actually spent at least 5 months total of it in Koh Tao! That definitely helps the budget and the spirit (I would break after a year of non-stop movement, I needed my breaks in between). And yes, I was happy to purse a career dream of mine (underwater video/photo!) and to flex my creative muscles.
By the way, super impressed you made it work with $700! That’s a leap of faith if I ever heard of it — and look at you, making it work!
I absolutely LOVE your honesty…thank you so much for being brave enough to lose your “street cred” in favor of being real! And I agree 110%, if you want something bad enough, you’ll find a way to attain it…SO happy I came across your blog via Sarah Somewhere..I’ll definitely stay tuned!! 🙂
Hi Tiffany! Thanks so much for this comment! So glad to have you reading and I hope you’ll stick around 🙂
Alex! Hope everything is great! Ur experience sounds amazing, hope u keep having such a wonderful time, if u come back to Costa Rica anytime just let me know! 😀
Mary! So great to hear from you! I’d love to explore a bit more of Central America… I’m sure I’ll be back in Central America someday!
ARGH, thank you for this super helpful post. I have been running around like a headless chicken trying to figure out how to save for my first trip to Thailand. Am checking out all your resources right now! Thank you! Love your stuff!
Thanks Jes! I hope some of them work for you! Best of luck.
I love your honesty Alex, and this was another well-written and insightful post. I know when I was first starting out, this was exactly the kind of thing I needed to read. Just knowing how someone has really made their dreams a reality is such a powerful driving force. You are living life your way, and I commend you for it 🙂
Aw, thanks Hannah! Posts like this one are hard to write so I really appreciate your feedback. As I know you know, it isn’t always easy to talk about money 🙂
Alex, great post again! And thanks for the openess on how the blog part works. I gotta start including links to Amazon on mine as well! Have a great weekend & happy halloween!
Amazon is a hard way to earn affiliate cash because you have to have a lot of traffic. I’ve had some success though, but most months are disappointing!
yup that’s what i thought as well, unless you have links to quite expensive things but then people are again less likely to just click “buy”. It’s great that you got sponsors like the Thai museum, well done!
Hey Alex! Just discovered your blog, and really enjoying it so far! Great advice in this post, the saving part really resonated with me. The amount of effort and hard-work I put in in the preceding 13 months before my trip was insane, but it was having that goal of taking off and travelling that made it all worthwhile. Like you said – and I thought this was the key thing – if you want it badly enough, you’ll make it happen!
And now I’m back home. And want it again! So the saving has commenced… 🙂
Hi Carl! Thanks so much for reading! Glad you liked this post, and that it rang true to you. Just remember, if you did it once, you can do it again… best of luck saving for the next adventure!
Thanks for another great article. As I am moving back home from living abroad for almost 3 years, I am trying to figure out how to get back out there as soon as possible. I appreciate the motivation. 🙂
I’m glad this post is still providing inspiration! Good luck getting back on the road 🙂
This was an AMAZING post!!! So well written!!
Thanks Devyn! The saving parts are still extremely relevant though the way I earn money has changed drastically. I need to update this!
WOW! You are such an inspiration. You’re page is what I I’ve being dreaming up in my head for years but seing it written down and knowing this lifestyle is possible gives me the motivation I need! thanks so much. keep doing what you love- I couldn’t agree more with all your advice!
Thank you so much for this sweet comment, Renee! I’m so happy to hear this helped… hope you stick around 🙂
Hey alex your blog is very inspiring .iam planning to go to thailand this year.i would also like i work when iam there .i would want to know how did u find these jobs? Specially babysiting n bar tendering .
Hey Cathy! Most of it is networking. I lived on the island, was friendly and got to know people. The bar was one I was a regular at and they offered me the job. The babysitting was a friend of a friend who I heard through the grapevine was looking for something. Honestly I don’t know of a good website or anything… I think you just have to go find them in person. Best of luck!
Did you require a visa to work in any of the countries you traveled to? For instance, would an American be able to be a fruit-picker in Australia without a Visa?
Hey Molly, you will definitely need a visa to work in Australia! I actually have a whole post about it — check out my Earning Abroad series for more info!
After reading this entry, I’m still amazed on how you have managed all the travels you’ve made. You have done a great deal of exploration in short amount of time. One question though, do you have any savings for retirement? Obviously we can’t do travel for the rest of time.
Hey Jasmine, no I am not currently saving for retirement. That used to make me nervous but my dad told me recently that he didn’t put away a penny for retirement until he was in his 30s, and he’s doing okay 🙂 Right now the money I have left over after my travel, business and personal expenses are paid goes toward big purchases like a new computer or a web design.
I love love love your blog! Thank you for sharing.
Thanks Lauren! I’ve actually been meaning to do an update to this post for a while now. Glad you’re enjoying!
I am an avid EDM fan and googled something about Tomorrowland budget and stumbled into your blog. I never knew such a thing called Full-time travel would be possible.
I am currently 25, unemployed and looking for work. I do want to work for next couple of years and gain all the knowledge from the books alongside to start my own journey which is to go to all music festivals. Are these books (in this post) all the books you would recommend for me? Are there any other sources where I can get more information which helped you in your journey?
These books are a great place to start, Eshan! I’m hoping to put a follow up to this post together soon — stay tuned! There are also plenty of location independent blogs to check out in the meantime as well.
I like what you are doing girl!. Travel is sure a great way to live. Today most uf us, if we plan well, can do this in some point. I do want to say that having a safety net and going to sleep at night knowing that you have that security in case anything happens is a big game changer. For others,when they have to work to get a safety net deciding to leave everything and travel indefinetaly is not so easy. Still, I don’t mean to point a fingers saying this but people are different and they should question themselves on ”why can’t I do what she’s/he’s doing?”. Everyone’s path will be different.I am currently working to create some financial safety in order to have the liberty to go and do as I please in the next coming years still knowing that my family will have something to rely on in case of an emergency. Being rational is key in this world.
So true, Maria. Having a bit of a safety net is a game changer indeed! My safety net has drained and now I’m living on the edge 🙂 That said, I do have a somewhat reliable source of income now. I’d love to built up those savings again though!
So similar to another commenter, I wanted to find ticket prices and expenses of Tomorrowland (because I am avidly trying to attend this event, following my unforgettable experience at EDC LV). However…I couldn’t stop reading post to post and I think I’ve spent about 3 hours on your site simply reading just about as many blog posts I possibly can before my eyes turn red. And I just have to say, wow..you have sincerely inspired me to chase my wanderlust dreams as well. I hope to travel to Thailand and Singapore next year and Hawaii later this year! Thank you so much for your helpful blog posts and tips — and of course, please keep blogging!!!!! (:
Hey Allie, glad you found me! No worries there… I definitely won’t stop blogging anytime soon! Enjoy the crazy ride of chasing all those travel dreams, and I hope you’ll stick around here too 🙂
Thanks for the tips! Im in the planing of backpacking right now and still have a lot to learn! Theres one question that keeps coming in my mind: All those bloggers talk about working but never about the visas. Is it hard to get working visas or do you not need those in certain countries (Or do you do jobs where those arent needed?)
It depends on the country Suzan! In many many countries, it is easy to find jobs without work permits. You might check out my Earning Abroad series, where my different interviewees address this!