When traveling the world, meeting older couples on airplanes, backpackers in hostels, locals on the street, expats in cafes, holiday-makers in restaurants, and you my dear, dear readers online, I am often faced with the question.
You know, the question.
“But how, exactly, do you do what you do?”
“Do” meaning travel. Lay on the beach. See amazing new places. Lead the life many wish they could.
“How” meaning money. Finances. The thing that binds us, controls us, traps us in a life we fantasize escaping from.
The short answer is this: Because I choose to.
I choose not to own a home. I choose not to own a car. I choose not to have children. I choose not to purchase electronics, expensive shoes, beautiful furniture, and home appliances. I choose not to have many possessions that cost money to acquire and maintain. Instead, I choose to travel. I choose to live simply.
Note: I am unbelievably privileged to be born in a country where wages are relatively high and I am free to travel to most places in the world. I am even more privileged to be born into a family who values education, reaps the benefits of being middle class, and supports me, occasionally financially, in my decisions. I am also lucky to be healthy, not have medical bills, prescription costs, and debts from surgeries. Many people in this world are not afforded these luxuries, and I do not pretend to understand their situations.
Let me guess, the short answer is not what you wanted to hear?
Ok, we can talk logistics.
In Seattle I led a life where I was accustomed to buying new designer clothes monthly, dining at expensive restaurants frequently, driving my BMW anywhere I fancied, and purchasing furniture, decorations, and dishware in an attempt to make everything around me more beautiful. I worked as many high paying jobs as possible to support this lifestyle without saving money for much else.
The first step in funding your travels is simply spending less both at home and abroad.
When I first came to Costa Rica I had about $2000 saved, which after airfare is not much.
Adjusting to living a low budget lifestyle was incredibly difficult for me in the beginning. I had to stop and think before each purchase I made. “Do I actually want or need this?” was a question I began to ask. Surprisingly most of the time the answer was no.
I began the trip sitting still in one town for a month, which dramatically lowered my costs.
I used my own two feet to get around, which was free, and I lost weight and became more grounded in the process.
I cooked most of my meals with the least expensive products available: local fruits and vegetables and unprocessed beans and grains. Canned goods, cheese, and fancy condiments were outside my budget. I learned to add flavor with freshness instead of fat.
I did not buy any clothing, souvenirs, or beauty products.
I treated myself twice a week to a taxi, dinner out, and drinks in the only swank bar in town with my best girlfriend and travel companion Andie. These nights were sacred, special, because they did not happen every day.
I became content, and actually more fulfilled, with this lifestyle.
Leaving Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica to travel through Central America I incurred higher costs, but kept to my budget by living as a backpacker rather than someone on vacation.
I stayed in hostels, cooked at least one of my meals each day, took public buses to reach new countries rather than airplanes, and purchased nothing (as if something more could fit in my massive backpack anyway).
On my visits back to the US, I applied my same money saving tactics in order to continue to save for future travel.
In New York City faced with a million temptations I resisted purchasing new clothes, walked past cafes, delicatessens, food markets, and assembled a healthy salad at home. I still experienced the city and the food, just not in excess. I had brunch at upscale diners on Sundays, ate sweet rich ice cream at the Chelsea Market, and partied til my stomach begged for a New York Slice. I simply did not do it every day. I let treats be treats. Special occasions be special.
But how do you actually acquire the money in the first place? (Read my post How to Save Money for Travel)
Sell Everything That You Own.
When I returned to Seattle after spending my initial two months abroad in Costa Rica and Panama, the first thing I did was empty my storage unit.
I sold every piece of furniture, every painting, every mirror I owned, save a few very special sentimental pieces. I consigned clothing I did not wear anymore.
I made one big sale, my car. I no longer had the expense of the storage unit or my car insurance, and had a large chunk in my savings, giving me a great deal of freedom.
In Tulum, Mexico I met an Aussie who had recently sold his home and began traveling through Central and South America with the money from his sale .
Even if you only have small items, an old iPod, camera, bookshelves, a winter coat, it all adds up.
Work in the First World, Travel in the Third World.
Whenever I find myself back in Seattle I pick up as much freelance design work as I can to save for my upcoming trips.
I know many Canadians and Americans who bartend or wait tables during the busy spring and summer months in tourist towns or big cities, save as much money as they can by living cheaply, then backpack or live in South America or Asia the rest of the year.
In Colombia I met a woman from the UK who spent a year teaching English in South Korea saving her wages. Working in Australia or New Zealand harvesting fruit and enjoying high wages, then traveling through Southeast Asia is another option.
Sailing from San Blas, Panama, to Cartagena I met a man who shared fascinating stories of working grueling hours in life threatening conditions on an oil rig for months at a time then traveling to South Africa, Asia, and now Colombia.
Tax returns from working in the first world have also helped me fund my trips. Even if you’re away when it’s time to file, use personal tax prep software and file online, then choose direct deposit so that you can get your funds ASAP while you’re still on the road.
Seek Employment in Towns Along the Way.
This is a great way to truly connect with the places you travel to. Pick up a bartending job in a Central American surf town. Work in hostels in cities all over the world, enjoying free room and board. Run the reception desk at a yoga studio.
These jobs will likely offer lower salaries than you may be accustomed to, but they can offer you enough to live to allow you to reserve your savings for the next step of your trip.
Build an Online Business.
If you are able to work online making a first world income while traveling to second and third world countries you have found the sweet spot. Blogging, ghost writing, web design, web development, building an e-commerce site, are all online businesses that pay incredibly well and give you the freedom to travel or live anywhere you like.
In Colombia I met a woman being paid to travel through South America and write about her experiences. She has done the same in Dubai and Bali. How did she get started? As an online freelance writer living abroad.
Think Outside the Box.
Be an entrepreneur on the road. Sell homemade cupcakes on the street when the bars close, offer your web design skills to local business owners, become certified in yoga or bodywork and give classes or massages on the beach, sell your handmade jewelry or clothes in local shops. Be resourceful and share your talents with travelers and tourists wherever you go.
Leading this alternative lifestyle may appear scary, but it is incredibly fulfilling if you allow yourself to continue down it. Do what you need to do to make it happen.
This post was inspired by one of my readers, Tiffany. Thanks Tiffany for getting me to finally answer the question everyone wants the answer to 🙂