How I Saved Money to Travel for a Year (and Counting)

A man sitting in a natural pool of water above Mooney Falls in Havasupai, Arizona

How I Saved Money to Travel for a Year (and Counting)

 

Life in my late-20s wasn’t going the way I had planned. I was broke and $31,000 in debt, working an exhausting and frustrating job. My days had become unfulfilling and I was unsure if I’d ever live a life that inspired me.

Long-term travel had always been a goal of mine. I wanted to wander the earth freely and at my own pace, climbing mountains, meeting new people, and trying strange food. This all sounded great, but having no money didn’t exactly inspire hope for my ambitious dreams.

My situation felt bleak at times, but I started making some big changes in an effort to live a better life. Within 18 months, I was able to pull myself out of the funk, completely pay off my debt, and build a new existence — one of freedom and travel. This drastic switch would never have happened without a complete overhaul of my attitude towards money, work, and my future goals.

These changes gave me the opportunity to see the world on my own terms.

If you want to travel more, but don’t know where to get started, you came to the right place. I’ll share the methods I used to help make travel a part of my everyday life. If you want the same for yourself, remember this: the process is going to be discouraging and difficult at times, but it is always worth it.

Here are some methods I used to save money to travel the world:

Take a Good Look at the Big Picture

Disclaimer: No matter how intimidating and discouraging your ‘Big Picture’ may seem, traveling the world will always be an option for you as long as you’re willing to put in the work. Being a world traveler is not a privilege reserved for only the rich, young, and single. With enough planning and perseverance anyone can travel the world for as long as they want. Mental barriers that keep us from believing this are crippling and must be torn down immediately.

Good, now that we’re on the same page, let’s look at the makeup of ‘The Big Picture’.

Travel Goals

Having a reasonably specific idea of what you want will give the structure you need to start planning and researching all of your potential destinations. Where exactly do you want to go? What are your biggest goals for the trip? How long do you want your journey to last? When is your target date to start traveling? Start mapping out a dream itinerary, it will serve as motivation along the way.

Do Some Research

Study some basics of the destinations you would like to visit and save yourself a mess of trouble in the future. Will you need to apply for visa to enter certain countries? Do you need to book a permit for your upcoming dream hike? What does a typical meal or hotel room cost halfway across the world? The internet has most of the answers. Go find them and start preparing.

Map Out the Finances

What is this all going to cost?

My budget style of travel costs about $40 a day. Some do it cheaper, some spend more. Calculate a comfortable daily figure and give yourself a target number to work towards.

If you want to travel for six months at $50 a day, aim to save up a minimum of $9000 (180 days x $50). I recommend adding 20% to your final figure to give yourself some padding. In this scenario, a good target number is $10,800.

Do some simple division to find out how much you need to save every month until you leave. (Target Number ÷ Months Left). Keeping your finances organized now will save you from cutting your trip short.

Start Tying Up Loose Ends

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Ben Franklin

Life is complicated. Identify roadblocks that stands between you and your trip, and start finding solutions. Do you have a pet that will need to be taken care of while you’re gone? Is your boss willing to give you the time off to travel? Do your loved ones have any issues with the trip you’re planning? Do you need to rent/sublet your house out while you’re gone?

Almost any problem that presents itself will have an solution. Start confronting any dilemmas you encounter immediately. Figure out answers now, not a week before you leave. That would be silly.

Commit Yourself Completely and Passionately

Be willing to do whatever it takes to make your travel happen. Don’t let your dream fizzle out because you got lazy or unfocused. Make a commitment not to cut any corners along the way. Let your successes dictate the path you’re on, not the failures. Anyone who doubts you is probably jealous. Prove them wrong.

Analyzing your ‘Big Picture’ will give you a clear idea of what you need to accomplish to pull this off. Keep yourself organized throughout the process, and good things will happen.

Make a List of Your Monthly Expenses

Every. Single. One.

We live in a world that encourages us to spend beyond our means. Success is measured in terms of what we own rather than the experiences we have. Looking back at when I was broke and in debt, it was clear that I was just another reckless consumer spending his money frivilously because it felt good.

Here’s a glimpse of what my monthly financial life looked like in 2015, the year I decided I was going to travel the world:

Housing and Associated Spending

  • Rent/TV/Internet/Utilities: $1035

Debt

  • Car Loan/Student Loan/Credit Card Interest: $470 monthly payments on $31,000 of debt

Groceries, etc.

  • Food/Beer/Dog Food: $330

Recurring Expenses

  • Car Insurance/Phone Bill/Gym/Netflix, etc.: $180

Miscellaneous Expenses

  • Restaurants/Bars/Events/Online Purchases/Gas/Haircuts: $725

And the Grand Total is…

$2740 a month! Or $32,880 a year.

And I was waiting tables making about $35,000 a year (after tax).

And I was $31,000 in debt.

Shit.

I was living paycheck to paycheck and treading financial waters. My debt seemed a necessary inevitability and I dreaded even receiving emails from my bank. A lot of things needed to change very quickly.

I encourage anyone that wants to start traveling to break down every detail of their finances. Open up your bank statements and immerse yourself in them. Write down and categorize every last monthly expense, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Do I really need to be spending all this money?”

The answer, of course, is ‘Definitely not.’

Reprioritize Everything

A happy yellow lab peeking his head out the door of a camper van in front of Crater Lake, Oregon

Save money, live in a van

 

Am I really spending over a hundred dollars a week dining out at restaurants and drinking at bars? Why did I sign a two year contract for 200+ channels of satellite TV? Why did I buy a $13,000 car when I didn’t have any money for a down payment?

Ask yourself the same types of questions. And don’t be gentle.

After allowing yourself an appropriate amount of self reflection, make the decision to take control of your finances. You have given yourself the opportunity to come face to face with every source of your financial shortcomings, now make some adjustments.

Housing

Most likely, your biggest monthly expenses are the costs associated with housing. Get creative and forge solutions to cut your monthly cost of accommodation.

Do you have an extra bedroom in your house/apartment that you can rent out? Can you find a more affordable neighborhood to live? Can you swallow your pride and move back in with your parents for a little while? The larger the sacrifice, the more money you will save. It’s simple.

My personal solution was to buy a camper van, sublet my apartment, and live out of the van for my last couple months in town. Making this change, instantly saved me an extra $1000 dollars a month. On top of that, life in the van was liberating, entertaining, and exhilarating.

Recurring Expenses

These are the annoying bills that arrive month after month. Yes, they suck, but the good news is that most are optional.

Can you find a cheaper monthly plan for your mobile phone? If you have a car, when is that last time you shopped around for a better insurance rate? Are you willing to cancel your gym membership and start working out at home for free? Is it really worth it to pay for a satellite TV package that keeps you inside and makes you less productive?

Every bill you eliminate, big or small, is a huge victory. Small savings now add up to big money in the long run. By the time I was ready to travel, I had said goodbye to my satellite TV and internet contracts, all gas/electric/water bills, Netflix, and Hulu.

I was saving around $200 a month or $2400 a year by cutting out these recurring expenses. That’s enough for two months of international travel on my budget.

Miscellaneous Expenses

Ah, the “Let’s Spend Money To Have Fun” category. There truly are many entertaining ways to part you with your hard earned money.

Let’s reflect back on the days when my spending habits were wild and untamed:

After work, I would visit the neighborhood bar and sip craft beers while pumping money into the jukebox and buying drinks for friends. Multiple nights a week I would spend my hard earned money at expensive restaurants. I wouldn’t think twice about spending a fortune on a concert ticket or flying across the country to see a football game. My lifestyle was entertaining, but it held me back from what I really wanted: to see the world.

Choose to cut back on the bars, restaurants, and luxuries immediately.

It’s not as hard as it sounds. Cooking delicious and healthy meals for yourself now will allow you to eat exciting and exotic food later (as you travel the world, of course).

Next time you have the impulse to make a large purchase, do yourself a favor and sleep on it. Analyze what you want and be honest with yourself about whether or not you truly need it. Don’t pass up on everything, just cut back as much as you can while still leading a fulfilling life.

Start Budgeting

A bowl of Chinese noodles in a spicy broth with meat and vegetables

A meal out like this costs at least $8 in the U.S., but only $1.50 in China

 

Budgeting isn’t as painful and complex as it sounds. I promise.

After you have carefully dissected your finances and lowered your monthly costs, it’s a good idea to give yourself some boundaries to keep from spinning back into a world of chaotic spending oblivion.

My method was to treat my monthly bills (rent, utilities, car insurance, cell phone, etc.) as a fixed monthly cost and exclude them from my budget. Get these expenses down as low as possible, put them on autopay, and ignore them.

What my budget focused on was my day to day spending that I could control.

Think: gas for your car, groceries, restaurants, bars, concert tickets, sporting events, impulse buys, clothing, etc.

Each month I gave myself a limit (usually around $600) and recorded my spending on a piece of paper at the end of each day. Writing down my expenses forced me to relive and rethink every purchase I made on a given day.

The budget became a bit of a game for me after a while, especially towards the end of the month. I found myself riding my bike more often, eating more free meals at work, and rethinking the way I shopped at the grocery store.

Sometimes I’d set an uncomfortably low budget for myself just to spice things up.

Tracking and controlling your spending is an extremely rewarding and effective way to create healthy financial habits and put you in firm control of your destiny to travel the world.

Give yourself a realistic limit and stay under it every month. No excuses.

Attack Your Debt

Let’s face it, owing someone money is such a drag.

It was only a few years ago that I was tens of thousands of dollars in debt and was barely making my minimum $470 of monthly payments. There was no way I was going to travel the world with such a big chunk of my money committed to paying off the banks every month.

Many people have come to the conclusion that they will be in debt their whole lives. Do not adopt this mindset! The longer you allow yourself to owe the rest of the world money, the less freedom you will have to explore the world.

So…?

Start paying off your debt immediately!

Once you have reprioritized your spending and given yourself a budget, be utterly vigilant in your quest to pay everything off. Refuse to keep giving the banks free money (interest) every month. Your future self will love you for it.

Start by paying off your debt with the highest interest rate first and pay off your debt with the lowest interest rate last.

For over a year, I was completely committed to slaying my debt demons. I began working way more and spending way less. Every penny I earned went straight to paying off the banks. No money was allowed into my savings account until all the debt was gone. I aggressively paid off $31,000 in 15 months.

You obviously don’t need to pay off all of your debt before you travel, but remember this: your debt will follow you across the world and it will be waiting for you when you get home.

The less you owe, the longer you will travel.

Work Your Ass Off

A smiling grey-haired Chinese candy vendor on a busy street corner

Work hard with a smile on your face

 

Now that you are focused on lowering your expenses and paying off your debt, it’s time to find a way to start making more money.

My solution was to work as much as I possibly could without driving myself crazy. I asked my boss for more hours, worked shifts people didn’t want, and stayed late to make extra money. Sure, I was a bit exhausted and cranky at times, but it was all part of my crazy plan.

If you earn a salary or aren’t able to pick up more hours at your job, don’t worry. There are plenty more ways to stack up some extra travelin’ money.

Ask for a Raise

Your boss isn’t going to approach you and offer you more money, that’s just not how the world works. Carefully put together a proposal explaining why you deserve a raise and initiate the conversation. Earning even a dollar or two extra an hour will make you thousands more over the course of a year.

Get a Second (or Third) Job

Boss won’t give you more hours? Didn’t get the raise you wanted? No problem, just go out and find another job. Lyft and Uber are great ways to make some extra cash and choose your own hours. Lyft will even loan you a car free of charge if you complete a certain number of rides every week.

Find Odd Jobs

Someone out there needs your help and wants to give you money. Chances are you can link up with them on Craigslist, NextDoor, or any number of community-based websites. I have found well paying gigs landscaping, house-sitting, dog-sitting, and moving with little to no effort. These jobs usually pay cash and are low stress.

Make Extra Money Online

There are a number of websites out there where you can make a few extra dollars from the comfort of your own couch. The payouts will never be huge, but a few bucks a day can really add up. A few of my favorites are Swagbucks, Amazon Mechanical Turk, and UserTesting.

Sell Your Old Stuff

Get on Craigslist, eBay, or just have a good old fashioned garage sale. Not only will selling your old belongings earn you some extra money, it will also go a long way in helping declutter your life and getting you ready to travel.

Get out there, work hard, and earn more money! It’s simple. A good work ethic and a solid resume will always create opportunities for you, even after you start traveling.

Plan ‘No Spend Days’

A man facing the camera standing on top of Mount Lincoln in Colorado

Money saving tip: get outside, do free stuff

 

Think of ‘No Spend Days’ as your way of money fasting.

When I was saving to travel, I would give myself at least one day a week where I wasn’t allowed to spend any money. No coffee. No snacks. No restaurants. No Amazon Prime purchases. No gas in my car. No beer. No groceries. Nothing.

Choosing not to spend reminds you that you are in control of your money.

It is completely empowering and is a great way to get back into good financial habits. Every ‘No Spend Day’ is a victory.

Stock your fridge with groceries and see how many consecutive ‘No Spend Days’ you can pull off. String together four or five and you will feel like an unstoppable genius. Who doesn’t want that?

My girlfriend and I would occasionally plan ‘No Spend Dates’ where we would fill a backpack with food, a hammock, and a frisbee. We would wander around town carefree and unburdened by the temptation to spend money.

Leave your wallet at home for a day or two and see how it feels. It’s healthy once in a while to let your money know who’s boss.

Buy Used

The ‘No Spend Days’ won’t last forever. Sooner or later you’ll have to make a significant purchase or two. I get it. Do yourself a favor and start your search by looking for a used option first.

With a little patience and due diligence, you can probably find what you’re looking for at a fraction of the ‘brand new’ price. Scour eBay, Craigslist, or Letgo to see if you can find what you’re looking for. Opt to see the product in person if possible or buy from a well-reputed vendor with a fair return policy.

I saved myself around $1000 when I bought my fully loaded MacBook Pro used off of Craigslist. It has worked perfectly since day one and is an incredible laptop to travel with and run my website. I didn’t get the deal right away though; I had to search Craigslist every day for a couple weeks until I found exactly what I was looking for.

Don’t be afraid to shop at thrift stores!

Sure, you may have to sift through hundreds of questionable items to find something that you actually like, but you’ll always end up leaving the store with something worthwhile. About half of my wardrobe was found scouring a thrift store. And my girlfriend doesn’t seem to mind. Just sayin’.

You may not always find exactly what you’re looking for when buying used, but when you do it feels damn good. Just be patient and willing to shop in ways that aren’t always the most convenient. You’ll save a lot of money in the process.

Reconsider Your Car

A man riding his bike down the street in Chengdu, China

Riding your bike = massive savings

 

Cars are expensive. And entirely unnecessary for most people. For those of you who don’t have cars, bravo. You’re already saving yourself tons of money.

Unless you are saving heaps of money by living out of a van, or you need your car for work or personal reasons, I strongly urge you to consider selling it. The money you will save by going carless will make a huge difference.

According to NerdWallet, “for vehicles driven 15,000 miles a year, average ownership costs added up to about $8,469 per year in 2017.” That ain’t cheap.

Think of how far an extra $8,469 dollars could go for you. That’s about seven months of international travel on my budget. Give me the choice between a car and travel and I’ll choose travel every single time.

But, if I sell my car, how will I get places?

  • Ride a bike
  • Take the bus
  • Take the metro
  • Carpool with a friend
    • Walk
    • Run
    • Skateboard
    • Hitchhike

You get the point.

While I’m writing to inform you of the financial impacts of owning a car, I’ll point you towards Mr. Money Mustache’s extremely well-informed, slightly aggressive rant against car ownership to cover all the other reasons.

Saving money is about making sacrifices, but for many giving up their car is a surrender they are not willing to make. Those who do choose to make the decision to go carless, will be rewarded handsomely.

Earn Interest, Don’t Pay it

I’ve already preached to you about how I feel about debt, but in case you forgot, I’ll remind you: It’s the absolute worst. Don’t be content with a life spent dutifully giving banks your hard earned money. Make a decision to be the one who collects interest.

Your money should be working for you and not the other way around.

If you have your debt under control, start putting a little money aside every month into a low-risk investment account. It will grow steadily and earn you interest over the long run.

I have been putting my ‘extra’ money into a Roth IRA where it has passively earned me a 9.2% return on my investments since 2013. I don’t plan on dipping into this money until I retire, but it serves as an emergency fund in case I run into any big problems during my travels.

If you are apprehensive about investing, I completely understand. Do some careful research on the subject and make a well-informed decision. What you’ll find is that your excess money is best suited to grow along side you as you explore the world.

Although my only current investments are in a Vanguard Roth IRA, I have used Betterment in the past for more short term returns.

Stockpile Airline Miles

Paying for expensive flights can absolutely cripple a budget and put a damper on future travel plans. Luckily, there is a way to earn airline miles that will allow you to fly for free as you go about your adventures.

While I was working hard to save money for my travels I was also busy accumulating hundreds of thousands of airline miles. Thanks to my surplus of miles, I haven’t paid for a flight in over a year (and I’ve taken many). I know, I know… this all sounds too good to be true, but it’s not. I promise.

So, how do I earn airlines miles?

The best way is through credit card signup bonuses. Credit cards often offer bonuses of anywhere between 30,000-80,000 miles if you can meet minimum spending requirements of the first few months of the card. As a point of reference to the value of miles, I just booked a one way flight from the U.S. to China for only 22,000 miles.

BUT, there is one rule that you absolutely MUST follow along the way: pay off your balance in full every single month!

If you do this, you’ll never pay interest. Credit card companies can afford to give away these generous bonuses because people sign up for the card, spend beyond their means, and pay exorbitant interest every month. Don’t be one of those people.

Be Patient

My transformation from broke waiter to tenacious traveler did not happen overnight. In fact, it took a couple years of planning, habit changing, and hard work to fully materialize.

Be prepared to embrace a slow and steady approach as you get your finances in line with your travel aspirations. New habits take time to develop and money doesn’t always come easily.

There will be times when you get frustrated and exhausted with the whole process.

It is a lot to take on! Don’t let this change in lifestyle affect your drive to get out and see the world. Stay the course and keep focused. All the hard work, budgeting, scrimping, and saving will reward you in countless ways.

You’ll thank yourself for sticking it out when you’re happily exploring our wonderful planet.

Bonus Tip: Learn From the Best

I would love to give you a long list of financial resources that I recommend, but the truth is that I get the vast majority of my advice from one place: Mr. Money Mustache: The man who retired at 30 years old. He has created a loyal following by combining humor, savvy, and innovative financial advice. I’d be remiss not to let the world know how influential he was in my own financial transformation.

Good Luck With Your Financial Journey!

Thank you for reading. Please reach out to me with any comments or questions. Share any personal experiences or additional tips you may have to offer in the comments below. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

10 Comments

    1. Yeah, he’s a serious expert in being frugal. And such a great writer too! He totally changed the way I look at money. Wish I could abide by his principles all the time, but I just like eating out at restaurants too much. Gotta spoil yourself occasionally.

  1. Thank you for a rational, real-world article about saving money and breaking down debt. I find too often I read these only to see the person’s way of paying down their debt was that their parents bought them a house and pay their bills, so they could contribute 90% of their income to their student loans.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Ryan. Yeah, I prefer living in a van to asking for a handout from the parents (I never would ask them in the first place anyways). A lot of people don’t realize that if they make a few small sacrifices and lifestyle changes, they can get out of debt and see the world as well. They just have to revamp their relationship with money, which isn’t as hard as it sounds. I tried to give as accurate and honest breakdown of how I got to where I am today. No riff-raff or misleading the reader, that’s not going to help anyone. I’m really glad you enjoy the post, man!

  2. I sold (almost) everything and am traveling full tine for the time being. We did keep some items in storage because we will return at some point and will need pots, pans, etc. But in the months leading up to the move, I got ruthless in assessing and selling items I barely used: kitchenware, clothing, souvenirs, etc. It actually felt really liberating each time those items left my house and cash came in. And it was less stuff to pack up!

    1. The weight that lifts off your shoulders is so freeing once you start purging your belongings, isn’t it? I’ve really come to believe that living a minimalist lifestyle is the healthiest and happiest way to go about life. Fewer possessions means more time to focus on yourself, your loved ones, and the adventures ahead. Thanks for the feedback, Deah and happy travels.

    1. That’s my goal one day: to completely support myself with only my computer and a WiFi connection. So, good for you… carving out a life like that is definitely not easy. You’re living the dream (assuming you enjoy your work).

  3. Too true! Us who choose to travel without being super rich make sacrifices because we prioritise these experiences. Some people don’t get that. The difference is, their 56″ Sony plasma TV won’t leave them that many happy memories, but, Alzheimer’s permitting, my life of travel will.

    I love your no spend day concept too. You are right that it is so liberating and unburdening to leave your wallet at home when you go out. Thanks to my style of travel, I frequently manage to have no spend days while travelling. Amazing!

    1. I’ll take a new, exciting, and sometime uncomfortable destination to a plasma screen TV any day of the week. And if I really feel the need to watch something on a big screen TV, it’s not hard to find one. Plus, Netflix on the computer is almost always an option as well.

      I need to get back to my ‘no spend’ concept. Probably should take a page out of your book and volunteer more. Free room and board coupled with rewarding experiences is a hard lifestyle to beat.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, my friend. May we remain forever frugal.

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