If money didn’t exist, there would be a whole lot more gypsies in the world.
Every day I receive emails from blog readers telling me that they want to live the way that I’m living, but they’re scared they can’t afford it. Every day I meet people on their one-week vacation who tell me the same thing. The overflowing quantity of sweet hopeful souls who express a deep longing to travel the world, but deem it impossible due to finances, never fails to astound me.
But for some crazy reason, going broke never held me back.
I’ve run out of money while traveling so, so, so many times. When I ignored my budget in Colombia and wound up back in Costa Rica without a dime, sleeping on my friend’s couch. When I spent all of my money on a flight to Bali to see my heartthrob one last time, and realized I didn’t have enough in the bank to get off of the island. When I finished my yoga teacher training and could hardly afford a bus ticket. And oh my goodness many, many, many other times.
Yep, it was scary. Yep, it was stressful. Yep, it kinda sucked. So I understand why so many people are hesitant to live like a gypsy even when it’s what their hearts desire.
But I also understand why I had to go broke so many times. I understand how it helped me. I understand the lessons I needed to learn. I understand that I needed to go through it to see that I could survive it.
And today, financially stable, living in paradise, and free to travel when I please, I am so grateful to have had those experiences, and be able to share them with you, so that hopefully, you never have to go through them yourself.
Here you have it my friends, my best advice for how to set a budget, travel on the cheap, and financially support a traveling lifestyle, for as long as your sweet heart desires. Yes, you can live like a gypsy without going broke, and here’s how:
Have a Cushion
Would you believe that your greatest barrier in moving forward, is not feeling safe and supported where you already are? It’s not easy to free fall into the unknown when you’re fearful of where you’re standing. When you have a financial cushion, making decisions for your future feels so much easier, more stable, and more heart centered.
For this reason, I highly, highly recommend starting your journey with enough to fund at least the first few months of your trip, just in case. Even if you plan to work trade, work abroad, or work online, you can protect yourself from going into survival mode when you’ve got back up in the bank. It alleviates so much of the stress and the pressure.
That said, traveling costs significantly less than people often think. I traveled through Southeast Asia for 8 months with just $9,000 (including flights). That was with meals out, occasional splurges, and frequent massages. I know plenty of people who have done it on less.
Come up with a budget (we’ll cover that next) and save enough money to cover your budget for 3 months. This will give you time to get into the flow of earning money while you travel, and will help you feel secure in the mean time. When your balance dips below $1,000, let it wake you up to start earning an income on the road. It’s also good to have this cushion for the times when freelance work is low, payments don’t go through, or “life happens”.
Again, it’s not necessary, and I’ve done it plenty of times with waaaay less money, but you’ll feel far more secure and less stressed if you keep a thick cushion.
Set a Budget
Unless you’ve got an unlimited cash flow, or you’re extremely frugal, if you don’t set a budget, you will go broke. Trust me, cause I’ve done it.
I spent $200 in one day in Spain without even being aware of it, when I would have been just as happy with a $30 day. And really, that’s what setting a budget is all about: bringing awareness to how you allocate your finances, so that you can reduce excess and have more money to spend on what you value.
How Much to Budget
How do you set a budget that feels realistic, supportive, and doesn’t deprive you of what you feel you need? It’s an integration of how much money you have, how much money you can make, what things cost where you’re going, and how much you need to feel comfortable. The budget of a family traveling in Europe will be very different from that of a 19-year-old-backpacker in South America. This is why in my travel guides, I offer you ranges from backpacker dorms to luxury eco resorts, from street food to culinary heaven, in destinations across the world.
Ask yourself how you want to sleep, how you want to eat, how fast you want to travel, and how many tours you want to do. Ask yourself how important each of these things is to you, and how much you value them. Remember, money is simply a stand in for value, so try to approach your budget in those terms. The less you need to spend to feel comfortable, the less money you’ll need to save and the longer you can travel without working. However, you also want to enjoy your experience. Find the balance between the two.
I generally set myself a budget of $1,000 to $1,500 per month when traveling in countries that are less expensive than the USA (Thailand, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, etc.) Yes, you can do it for less, but sometimes I like to have my own private room and have a green smoothie at an organic restaurant.
How to Stick to Your Budget
Once you’ve determined a budget that feels good, adhere to it! I do this by plugging in my daily expenditures (in the morning or the end of the day) into this spreadsheet which automatically calculates my remaining balance, whether I’m over or under budget, and get this, it shows me a NEW daily budget depending on what I’ve spent the subsequent days. For the full explanation of how the spreadsheet works, check out my post My Incredibly Geeky But Effective Travel Budgeting Technique.
And hey, give yourself a break! You are bound to over spend at some point, forget to track one day, and on and on. That’s ok. It’s all part of the learning. So give yourself a break, make an intention to do your best, and allow yourself to make mistakes. That’s what your cushion is there for, right?
Spend Less Money
It’s funny that the easiest way to travel for longer, is also the hardest: spending less money. When I am aware of what I’m actually spending (by tracking my expenses in my budget sheet) I notice that above a certain point, spending more doesn’t contribute to much more to my happiness. Here are the ways that I’ve saved money over the years, that have helped me afford to travel for longer.
Take it Slow
This is probably the #1 most effective way to save money while traveling. When you spend at least a month in one location, you can rent a house at local rates, cook your own food, and save on transportation costs. You will also have the time and space to find work, do work trade, or work on an online business.
On another level, it gives you the opportunity to get involved with the community, cultivate friendships, and find another place in the world that could become a second home. That’s exactly how I began my travels, in a beach house in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica for a month. Four years later and I still consider it home!
Couch Surf, Hostel Hop, Home-Stay
I generally stay in hostels, which can be as cheap as $5 for a shared dorm room in Nicaragua to $20 for a swank hostel in Bangkok. If you can afford it, opt for your own private room, but no matter your age, hostels are the best place to meet other travelers. Another benefit is that they have many services that budget hotels don’t have, like shared kitchens, shuttle service, and laundry.
When a hostel isn’t an option, or I want some privacy, I stay in a sweet cabin or guesthouse. In Southeast Asia home stays are far more common than hostels, and I’ve managed to get my own bungalow with breakfast on the beach at a family run local place for $10 a night. It’s a great way to support the local economy, learn more about local culture, and save money all at the same time!
For the super frugal traveler, or anyone who wants to befriend a local, Couch Surfing is a great option. I’ve done couch surfing only a couple of times, once I had a bizarre experience in Munich and another time a lovely experience in San Jose. Be sure to check the reviews and speak to the person ahead of time, especially if you’re a woman traveling alone and safety is a concern. Generally people have great experiences and develop lasting friendships through couch surfing.
Cook Your Meals
I not only recommend cooking for yourself while traveling because it’s good for your budget, I also recommend it because it’s good for your body. There will definitely come a time when you’re sick of eating out, especially when you’re eating cheap street food.
Having a shared kitchen is one of the biggest benefits of staying in a hostel. You can shop at the local markets and prepare fresh salads and veggies for dinner, and even pack picnics for the day. If you don’t have access to a kitchen, you can still cool meals for yourself, which is how I did it in Southeast Asia and Morocco. I would shop at the local markets and get fresh greens and avocado to make myself salads in my hotel room and I’d snack on nuts and fruit. Whenever I found a health store I’d stock up on dry goods like oats, superfoods, nuts, and seeds. It definitely helps to have a tupperware container, some good quality salt, and a set of cutlery.
Take Public Transport
How do local people get around? By bus of course! You can save a lot of money by opting for the slower, more local transportation option. For instance, a taxi from the airport to the city center in San Jose, Costa Rica costs $20-$40 depending on your haggling skills and traffic. Whereas a local bus costs less than $2. A bus is usually less convenient and takes longer, but it provides the opportunity to meet local people. I’ve taken 30 plus hour buses through Southeast Asia, and while uncomfortable at the time, some of my favorite memories and funniest stories come from those rides.
Fly in and Out of Hubs
Suppose you want to fly from Seattle to Bali, but you don’t think it’s possible because a one-way ticket costs $1000. Did you know that with some flexibility, you could get there for only $550 instead? Singapore, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur are all popular airline hubs with reasonable flights to the USA. You can fly one way from Seattle to Bangkok for $500, for example. Once you’re in Southeast Asia, you can fly on a low cost airline like Air Asia for around $50 from any of those hubs to Bali.
Similarly, in Europe, you can fly into London for much cheaper than you could fly to Athens, and get a flight with Ryanair (local low cost carrier) sometimes for as low as $10!
Research the airline hubs in the general part of the world where you’re going, and see if you can get cheap local flights from the hub to your desired destination.
I can’t stress enough how helpful this is. If you can be flexible with your dates, flexible with where and when you go, and flexible with how you travel, you’ll save a ton. For instance, you can save hundreds on flights, simply by being flexible with when you leave.
In many countries, everything is negotiable. This is particularly true in Southeast Asia and Morocco. In Bali I haggled for my bungalow down to less than half of the original rate. In Morocco I bought textiles and jewelry for one tenth of the starting offer (still crazy to me!) Do your research first to make sure that haggling is appropriate and respectful where you are, then let the games begin!
Go in the Low Season
Typically everything is cheaper when less tourists are around. Flights are certainly cheaper and I’ve negotiated for rooms at a rate of less than half of the asking price. When the place would sit empty otherwise, you have much more room for negotiation. For example, the house I am staying in now in Costa Rica has a nightly rate of $80, but because it’s the low season and I’m staying for the entire month, I’m paying a quarter of that price.
Travel With a Friend
As much as I love solo travel, it’s definitely less expensive to travel with a friend. Most notably when it comes to saving money on your room. You can often share a private room with your own bathroom for the same price you would have paid for your own bed in a dorm. In Nicaragua I traveled to an island with only private bungalows, and I would have paid half had I been with a friend. You also save on private transportation and tours. Don’t let this discourage you though, it’s very easy to meet and make friends on the road who you can travel with for short stints.
Admittedly I’ve never actually committed to doing work trade, because I’ve always wanted that time to invest in my blog instead. However, I have tons of friends who have done work trade, and had phenomenal experiences. Work trade enables you to sleep and often eat for free, and sometimes you earn income on top of that. For more info on Work Trade, and working overseas in general, check out my article How to Travel When You’ve Got Absolutely No Money.
Create a Job You Can Do From Anywhere
If you want to quit your job and sustain a life of travel, you can’t live on savings forever. Eventually the money will run out and you’ll find yourself back home, trying to save all over again. Or, you’ll bounce around volunteering from place to place, living on a shoestring, and eventually get burned out.
Many people I meet on the road have chosen to focus on careers that they can do while traveling. Working on cruise ships, teaching English abroad, and teaching yoga are all great examples that I highly encourage people to try. However, they typically require working for someone else, in a set location, for a set period of time.
For lasting freedom to travel when and where you want, and the time to focus on your true purpose, you need to create a source of income that flows no matter where you are.
When you’re getting started, don’t worry if this revenue stream doesn’t feel like your true calling. The key is to find something that doesn’t take a lot of time, but earns you enough money to travel and explore. It should support you, but give you the space to start building a business that does align with your passion.
For my advice on creating a job that you can do from anywhere, read my article How to Travel and Work From Anywhere.
Celebrate Your Success
When I started traveling to places with heartbreaking poverty and socializing with backpackers on a shoestring, I noticed that I felt guilty for having money. My rejection of money as something that made me unhappy and destroyed the earth caused me confusion and frustration. Further, I wondered why I deserved to afford a beautiful meal in an organic restaurant when there were children who went without any meal at all.
I believe it’s the single reason why I went broke so many times. As soon as I became financially stable, I judged myself, and consequently slowed my momentum with earning money. I feared that having money meant I’d be back in the cycle of consumerism that had never brought me fulfillment in the past. But running out of money and worrying when my next paycheck was coming didn’t feel good either.
Over the last year I decided that things needed to radically change. Through many experiences, many moments in quiet with myself, and even a few breakdowns, I healed my relationship with money. (One of the ways was by watching this video: It’s Spiritual to be Rich.)
I accepted that I do not understand why some people are born into poverty and others into privilege. I accepted that it’s not my fault, and feeling guilty doesn’t change it. I also accepted that while money doesn’t buy happiness, when used with love, it can be an incredible tool for making the world a happier place. Most importantly, I accepted that the work I do has tremendous value, and allowing value to flow back to me acknowledges how worthy I am.
Celebrate every dollar that comes in and every dollar that goes out. Celebrate how fortunate you are to be traveling. Celebrate how powerful and courageous you are to dare to do it. Celebrate you. You deserve it.