One of the most common (and frankly, frustrating) questions that we get about our travels is “what is your secret to being able to afford to travel like you do?”. This question takes several forms including “did you win the lottery?”, “are you trust fund babies?”, and “do you have a long lost Daddy Warbucks?”. Of course the answer is, no, there is no secret, we don’t have rich relatives that are dying off and leaving us millions, and we haven’t won any money (well, I did win $16 at BINGO when we were in the Florida Keys – does that count?).
And I tell people this. Every time. And yet the question continues to come up again and again and I’m pretty sure that no one believes my answer anyway. So I’m going to outline the reality of our saving, and our spending… on the road.
Our first extended trip began back in February of 2013. We had been living and working in Oahu for a bit and I had (miraculously) managed to save some cash. I say “miraculous” because Hawaii is an excruciatingly expensive place to live and the wages are excruciatingly low. But I had a history of being frugal and saving my pennies and I’d been sacking money away for the past few years. $23,000 to be exact. And I’m not talking about my 401k or IRA or any other investments. I’m talking cold, hard, cash. And Nick had some money saved as well (he is also an exceptional saver) so we decided to quit our jobs, abandon our apartment, and take off for a 15 month international adventure. And no, we didn’t have a set timeline at the beginning. We wanted to travel for as long as we could until we ran out of the money that we set aside for the trip.
I ran out of money after about 12 months. And I didn’t actually RUN out of money. I just spent the maximum amount that I felt comfortable spending so that when I got back to the states I would have enough to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly until I could find a job. So I kept $3,000 in my checking account and guesstimated that it would take me about 60 days to go back to being gainfully employed. Meaning that during that 12 months of international travel I spent about $20,000.
Now here is where my blog post has a slight gap. When I “ran out of money” at 12 months, Nick started funding the remainder of our time abroad which ended up being another 3 months give or take. And we weren’t married at the time so I’m not 100% sure what he spent during our time abroad. I’d like to think we split most things fairly evenly but the reality is that he booked a lot of our larger excursions (like the Inca Trail hike) and he purchased our van in New Zealand so he probably spent a bit more than me. My educated guess is that he spent about $30,000 in 15 months. So all-in-all our 15 month excursion to 16 different countries cost us ~$50,000.
If you’re trying to do a quick calculation in your head right now I’ll make it easy for you – that equates to ~$115/day for 2 people which is $57.50/day/person. In reality, that is pretty low. We normally advise single travelers to plan to spend about $100/day. And that doesn’t mean that you will actually spend $100/day but it averages out what you will spend on a normal day with transportation costs and excursions and other more infrequent expenses. We were lucky during that time and we had flight benefits through Nick’s sister who is an airline pilot so our flight costs were about 1/10th of what they would normally be. So we are more of the exception than the rule and planning for $75-100 per person per day would be more reasonable.
I should stop here to say that Nick and I were NOT travelling like many early 20-somethings do. We met loads of stinky, hungry, disheveled backpackers that lived on far less. We met a couple in Burma that were on a similar route as us and budgeted $38/day for 2 people (so $19/person/day). And I think they ate a can of tuna for lunch that day. We were NOT interested in being miserable during our trip. We opted to spend a bit more and travel for a bit less time and actually enjoy the food and wine in the countries we visited. But my point is that it absolutely is doable to do it for less and you can check out some of their stories here).
So, we ran out of money and moved back to Portland and lived with my parents for a few weeks and got jobs and an apartment and were normal people. For about 2.5 years. And we saved (and sacrificed) a lot so that we could take off again. We worked for those 2.5 years and saved ~$50,000. Again, we are not talking about our investments, we never touch those. We are talking cold, hard, cash. Most people find this shocking that we managed to sack away so much money. Here’s the thing, we are a duel income household and we both have really good careers. Nick is in software sales and I’m in human resources. Both pay reasonably well. And we don’t have kids. Or pets. Or own a house. Or have credit card debt. Or a car payment. Or school debt. Or cable. We don’t have to maintain a yard. We don’t have major medical expenses. You get the drift. Our monthly bills included rent, car insurance, electricity, food, and cell service. There was never a time when we debated whether or not to buy the $2,000 couch or to do that bathroom remodel or buy that brand new Benz. Those just weren’t priorities because the future that we envisioned for ourselves involved less things and more adventures.
We took off again in October of 2016 for an epic US road trip that took us from Portland, Oregon to the Florida Keys and back again. I’d like to say that we were able to stick to a similar budget as before but that most certainly wasn’t the case. We were road tripping in a 1994 Ford Bronco that got 13 miles to the gallon. So in the 6.5 months that we were gone we spent thousands of dollars on gas alone. And then you tack on car trouble and food and camping costs and the occasional hotel splurge and I’d estimate that we were spending closer to $160/day (so $80/day/person). Which is unfortunate since I figured we would spend far less by cooking for ourselves every night and sleeping in National Parks.
And now we are taking the remainder of our cash and heading to Eastern Europe. I’m on flight benefits again and Nick is buying his flights with miles. We have less cash than anticipated so we’ll have to give each purchase a little more thought. And again, we don’t have a specific time frame in mind and plan to go for as long as we can. This time, we hope to find ways to work while on the road (once we figure that out, we’ll let you know…)
So there you have it. It’s not rocket science. It’s not some secret or mystery. It’s about working hard and setting priorities and making sacrifices to do the things you love to do. Do I sometimes wish that I had my own house that I could paint and furnish and call home? Of course. Do I miss my comfy memory foam California king-sized bed? Daily. Do I see our friends having babies and get a small pang of sadness deep in my ovaries? Most definitely. The grass is always greener. But right now, right at this moment, I know that I am doing what I love and living in the moment and waking up every morning knowing that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.