I am seven months into my twelve month journey – so I am using this week to do a general status check…reviewing my finances, reflecting on my mental health, and beginning to plan for my return home.
Starting with finances…
Traveling looks so exotic. When I look at photos of people around the world, I often wonder how they are covering the expenses of being away.
Outside of “Are you married?” and “Do you want a ______ (fill in nationality of country) husband,” the questions I am asked mostly relate to how I can afford to take a year off of work. It’s a curious conversation because while others might think it personal, I am more than happy to share.
First off, I recognize that I have the privilege of having a good job and a lifestyle that allows for much financial freedom and personal decision-making when it comes to money. I know this is a privilege – and will say it again and again. My privilege is not lost on me, and I recognize that being away is not a luxury afforded to all. But, I also know that there are others who want to know specific strategies for adding more travel to their lives – even if it will take years to plan, so I am sharing a few of my basics.
On the positive side, sometimes, people are surprised to hear that life on the road is WAY CHEAPER than living in Chicago. While my accommodations are typically not fancy, there are generally safe and comfortable options that fall well below the monthly cost of rent at home. Eating on your own often means picking up grocery store items or simple take-out options. Generally, on most days, I don’t have many expenses outside of accommodations, food, and transportation. Being away from places like Target, missing nights out with friends, and having to carry anything I buy are all financial wins while away.
As for challenges, I have taken a few unanticipated financial hits that happen when traveling. I have spent more on airfare than I should have because of a wonky itinerary that includes detours for valued people connections. Last minute changes in plans meant lost money on a flight and accommodation that needed to be changed. Unexpected expenses are a reality of traveling, so I think it’s best to count on them before going and really consider the importance of blending travel planning with budgeting. Having more than you think you will need is likely a good plan.
Here are some things I did to prepare financially for this journey.
PLANNING and BUDGETING:
It took me four years to prepare for the financial aspects of living without a paycheck for a year. Outside of not getting paid while away and having to pay for my ongoing travel expenses, I also had to prepare for “up front” and maintenance expenses that needed to be considered before I left. These expenses include covering my international health insurance for the entire duration of my trip, maintenance costs for my condo while away, initial airline tickets, etc.
The budget-guru Dave Ramsey became an important partner as I used his books or online resources as a foundation for much of my planning. Ramsey suggests, “If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.” Instant gratification of spending feels so good – so he doesn’t say not to spend anything. He just suggests being logical in planning your budget and using your own hustle to live the life you desire.
Budgeting the Ramsey way is scary because you can’t fool yourself about your spending. Every penny is planned and accounted for. For me, an adapted Ramsey spreadsheet documented every penny I spent during the last four years and led me to categorize money into predetermined budgeted areas. While I was never perfect with my spending – this system kept me consistent in monitoring all money going out and adjusting my time working if I needed to make up for unplanned spending. So – instead of a plan that restricted all spending, I decided exactly what I was able to spend on things like dining out, clothing, gifts, groceries, and charity each month. Logging my expenses each day forced me to take a hard look at whether or not my money was supporting my goal and adjust as needed.
The Ramsey budget plan revealed parts of my daily life that were less than desirable – with so much waste in which I was not a gracious steward of the money I have earned. There were definitely struggles with taking a hard look at myself – but I feel like the value went beyond just my financial planning – but also made me really consider my personal values and priorities.
If you know me, you know I have been working a lot during these four years with my full time employment as a teacher and weekend work at a hotel front desk. Outside of this, I tutored one student weekly and supplemented all of the jobs by delivering food with Uber.
There were two benefits to working during all of my waking hours. First being the obvious income from my work and the side hustles. Having money from multiple sources allowed me to cover my typical expenses while also putting extra into a travel fund. Second, working so much kept me away from spending on social events and shopping trips. I learned that free time is expensive.
Outside of side hustles for work, Ramsey encourages you to look for all types of creative income streams. Some that worked for me would obviously not be possible for others. But, he suggests that everyone consider their own lifestyle and find creative ways to find money sources.
For the year before I left, renting my condo and being a bit of a vagabond was an option for me. Between time with my aunt, staying at hotels using the employee discount, and house-sitting for friends who live in the community, my life was a bit unpredictable. My overnight bag was always ready and there were some nights when I craved the comfort of one solid place to sleep. Living this way wouldn’t work for everyone, but there might be ways to supplement income through things like a roommate or AirBnb room rental.
I also planned for my rental income while I am away to cover most my costs and provide a bit of funding for travel expenses. While it has certainly helped, a large special assessment for roof repairs and an error with taxes on my parking space have minimized the bottom line of rental benefits. For me, it’s easy to imagine the rental dollars coming in, but I am not great at anticipating the costs that go out. It’s a lesson I am learning.
MY DREAM BOX:
Four years ago, I covered a shoebox with vision board pictures and quotes from magazines and made some very specific rules for this “dream box.” Any cash that I was given – as a gift, through reimbursement by others, or via tips or Uber earnings went into this box. Money could not leave this box unless it specifically funded something that supported a dream – mine or others – that could not be otherwise accomplished with my regular income. This has been the MOST FUN part of my budgeting because it feels like real money when it is removed. Through gifts from family and friends, I have been able to fund some beautiful projects while away – and I always try to match their gifts using money from my dream box. Dream box expenses are rash and against better judgment sometimes – and that is fun too.
I can talk myself into almost any bad idea when it comes to money. For this reason, I have found a few key accountability partners to keep me on track. Getting someone else involved in your finances can be tricky, so I can only suggest that having a thick skin reaps positive rewards – even when it hurts a bit.
SPENDING WHILE AWAY:
There isn’t much that I can say about this that would work for others. There are many ways to save money while traveling, but determining a traveling budget is so personal. For me, I am totally okay with staying at less than perfect places but will spend extra money on flights if I really want to meet up with someone. I have time, so on this trip, I can take slow, but cheap methods of transport. Food is not important to me so I rarely spend more than $10-$15 a day on all of my meals. Finding hotels with breakfast included usually means I am only buying one meal a day. I am just as happy at a local coffee shop as I would at a fancy restaurant. A day spent wandering is just as good as a daylong tour. I guess my point here is that I don’t know how to tell someone else to plan financially for their time away outside of saying that you can’t always do everything, so try to determine what is most important to you.
There really wasn’t any magic here – even if it took me 15 years to save instead of 4- it would have been worth it. Here are the best tips I have…
- Make a plan for specific amounts to spend each month and try to stop spending when that money is gone. Some people use the “envelope system” for this. I like to earn credit card rewards – so I have done my budgeting in a spreadsheet that gets updated each morning.
- Find extra work and put the money from those side jobs into a dream/travel fund. Doing this, motivated me to keep delivering food with Uber even when I was tired because I knew that every dollar made a difference in my bottom line of traveling.
- Be creative with the “big” expenses in life like housing and a car. Not everyone may have someone to live with – but considering AirBNB rental income from an extra room might make a difference.
- Provide enough time to make it happen – four years was a big commitment – so I had to consistently review my goals and finances to remind myself that the extra work was moving in a good direction. There is no way around it – there are days when saving felt frustrating. Set and achieve mini goals along the way to help your psyche and motivation.
- Tell everyone about your plan – having others hold me accountable made a difference when I felt like changing my mind or giving into excessive spending impulses.
- Feed yourself with a “diet” of budget-minded websites, books, and articles that provide new ideas for saving kept the process fresh for me. There are other people who have been successful in saving – look for ideas from what they have learned.
- If you haven’t already done so, sign up for a travel reward credit card. As a Marriott employee, I opted for the SPG/Marriott card. Over the course of four years I charged as much as I could and have been able to use my points for multiple nights of accommodations.
- Setting up an Acorn account was another way to “find” money as this app that tops off all of your credit card purchases to the next highest dollar and invests it. While it is just your own money being saved, the small chunks made the savings feel invisible – but the $$ add up fast.
- Be sure to budget, but also enjoy ongoing treats too.. You just want to be sure that these treats fit in your overall long-term plan. I still had splurges and spent on travel during these four years, especially during summers. I just pre-planned and accounted for the expenses to avoid loss of savings and stay on track toward my big mission.
- While away, schedule tours and events locally when you can and always be open to sharing them with others. For example, when visiting Wadi Rum last week, I reached out to a couple on my bus ride there to see if they wanted to split the cost of a Jeep tour. It was not only more fun together, but we all saved money.
- I had to learn that being on a budget does not mean being cheap. There are still ways to be generous with others – you just have to be a bit more creative in your approach.
- Do what works for you – but recognize that a specific and deliberate plan is important. Here is the bottom line for me. When I don’t have a plan, I spend what I earn and that means I never have enough money to do what really matters to me.
I am an open book. If there are ever questions about your own planning, feel free to reach out.