I'm So Obsessed With Travel I've Completely Changed The Way I Think About Money
Traveling is more about your mindset than your income.
I'm not really sure when the travel bug bit, but I do know that over the past decade I've traveled A LOT and eventually turned traveling into my job.
These days I work as a travel writer (among other things), a job that basically requires me to constantly be seeing and experiencing new places and cultures so I can keep writing about them. It's weird to say I have to travel to Ecuador for my job, but it's true. Trips like that inspire story ideas, which keep me paid.
But other than a few rare opportunities, I travel on the cheap (which is where my second obsession, saving money, comes in). Here's how I make it work on a reasonable — and highly fluctuating — salary.
As a freelancer, my income fluctuates based on how hard I hustle. I usually make between $45,000 and $55,000 a year, so I'm not booking five-star (or even three-star) hotels or hitting up fancy restaurants when I travel.
First, when I travel, I keep working.
This is key: The main reason I'm able to travel like I do is because I can work from anywhere with Wi-Fi. It makes no difference whether I'm clocking in from my apartment in Colorado or an Airbnb in Beirut (my current locale) — I just have to get my work done.
This is a big one, because that means that when I'm traveling I have to spend a good chunk of the day inside on my computer. BUT I've found that a) when I travel, I'm super motivated to get up early and get my work done so I can cut out in the afternoon, and b) there is always the weekend (or whatever days off you choose to take).
I turn down higher-paying "regular" jobs to stay freelance so I can travel when and where I want to.
I'm pretty career driven, so turning down jobs that seem like the next step in my career has always been tough for me. But over the past few years, I've started to value the freedom that comes with working for myself. I've worked for fully remote companies before (and loved it), but even they couldn't offer me the freedom to clock in from Lebanon for several months and work odd hours.
I travel to fewer places for longer periods of time, which allows me to pay less for lodging, figure out the local food scene, and really get a feel for a country.
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That whole work thing (see #1) is less of an issue when you're spending more than a week in a country. Because I don't have work-imposed limits on where or how long I travel, I typically like to go for a good chunk of time.
And staying in one place for longer has a whole lot of perks — most notably lower-priced Airbnbs (just try comparing a monthly rate to a nightly rate), the ability to actually explore a place, and the chance to figure out the local food scene, which is often 100 times cheaper than those hip, westernized cafes.
When I'm traveling, I typically eat two meals a day at my rental.
I tend to eat breakfast and lunch in my rental and dinner out — although it changes by the day. And while this loose two-meal-a-day rule is mainly about saving money, I've also found that when you travel for a long period of time it's actually
nice to stay in and eat comfort food (yogurt and granola, PB&Js, spaghetti, burritos).
Full disclosure: If I'm in a super-cheap country, that two-meal-a-day rule often drops to one.
I adjust my travel style (sometimes dramatically) based on where I am.
Important piece of information here: You cannot travel in Switzerland like you would in Laos. In the former, a meal at an "inexpensive restaurant" might cost you
25 francs ($27), while in Laos, a similar meal might cost you $3.
Moral of the story? You have to know when to live the high life and when to rein it in. And if Switzerland is on your bucket list and you're broke, come prepared to live off PB&Js.
And even if I'm in a country with an extremely low cost of living, I never pay for a fancy hotel and rarely eat out at expensive restaurants.
Remember when I said I love being cheap and saving money? I meant it. I'm honestly not the type to book a five-star hotel or a fancy dinner reservation — even if I'm in a country where I could afford it. I'm happier eating a falafel sandwich on a park bench with a smuggled bottle of wine.
Everyone has a different travel style (own yours!), but this mode of operation saves me big bucks.
I am also constantly adjusting my at-home lifestyle based on what sort of money I have coming in and what curveballs life has thrown at me.
TLC / Via Giphy /
My income is always fluctuating, and like everyone else, I am only in control of my life to an extent — layoffs happen, divorces can be unavoidable, and new family members enter our lives.
I am constantly adjusting my at-home spending based on my current income and what sort of life changes I'm dealing with. For example, I
like to eat organic, but if I'm having trouble finding work, I'll skip the $3 organic avocados and grab the $1 ones. I've found that this willingness to adjust spending when my financial situation changes ensures that I have money in the bank and keeps me from getting overextended.
I drive a beater car so I can travel for extended periods of time without worrying about a monthly car payment.
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Fanny, my beautiful 2007 Subaru Outback, is not a sexy car, but I have no monthly payments, insurance is cheap, and she runs. She's also like family.
I live in a one-bedroom apartment with crazy-cheap rent so I can afford to pay a second "rent" when I travel.
I don't have a monthly car payment, but I do rent a one-bedroom apartment in a small town in Colorado. Luckily, my rent is super affordable (and I split it with my husband), which allows me to save more money when I'm home and cover what I think of as two rents when I travel — my home rent and my on-the-road lodging costs.
I use credit cards, but if I don't actually have the funds to pay for something, I won't buy it.
My parents taught me that I should never buy something I can't pay for upfront, and it's a practice I've carried into my adult life. I rack up my credit cards just like anyone else, but I never spend more than what I have in the bank.
I avoid debt like the plague, which is why I may never own a home or a new car.
This is a tricky one, because I know that going into
debt can be a good thing (building credit and all that). But to be honest, debt makes me uncomfortable. It's part of the reason I don't own a home and why I'd never buy a new car.
The truth is that mortgages and car payments (and really, any monthly payments) keep you tied down. To pay for that three-bedroom house and new SUV you have to work a high-paying job. And so the cycle begins: buy things, work to pay for those things, buy more things, figure out how to make more money, and get increasingly stuck.
It's a cycle that makes travel, especially the sort of long-term, free-wheeling travel I like to do, next to impossible. It's hard (and irresponsible) to travel for long periods of time when you have a ton of debt and due payments hanging over your head.
I'm obsessive about saving money.
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This is a weird one psychologically, but part of the reason I feel OK traveling as much as I do is because I know I have money in the bank. That being said, I can only think of a couple times when I used my savings for travel. The money is more about safety and comfort for me; I like to know it's there.
I imagine that one day I'll use it for some big purchase — grad school, buying a home (yes, maybe), or getting out of a sticky situation — but it's not something I use to buy last-minute tickets to Bali.
I changed banks just to avoid ATM fees.
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My brother (or maybe it was my mom) told me
Charles Schwab actually refunds you at the end of the month for any ATM fees you've incurred, and within a week, I swapped banks. I'm not a cash person, but many countries (and lots of local services) are still cash based, and I am always pulling out cash when I'm on the road.
Bonus: If you like to use your ATM card like a credit card, Schwab also has no foreign transaction fees (a fee imposed by your bank on a transaction that takes place overseas).
And I only sign up for credit cards with great travel perks and no foreign transaction fees.
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A credit card with foreign transaction fees is a deal breaker. I only sign up for credit cards that work in Denver like they do in Paris (read: no extra charges just because you're in France).
I also focus on the travel perks. I fly United a lot, so I have a
United MileagePlus card that gives me 1 mile for every $1 I spend and 5 miles for every $1 I spend on United flights (plus, the miles never expire). I also have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which has a $300 annual travel credit (!!) and gives you 3 points for every $1 spent on travel and restaurants and 1 point for every $1 spent on other purchases. (Full disclosure, the Sapphire Reserve has an annual membership fee of $450 a year, and I think it's about to increase for 2022. It's not cheap.)
Finally, I never check a bag or pay extra to choose my seat on the plane.
I'm one of those people who find it
super annoying that airlines try to charge you extra for things like luggage and seats. I refuse to play the game.
And honestly, when it comes to luggage, it doesn't matter — I firmly believe I will never need to travel with more than a carry-on suitcase and an overstuffed backpack (your in-flight "personal item"). If I'm traveling somewhere for 14 days, I don't need 14 outfits and 14 pairs of underwear; washing machines exist all over the world.
As for reserving a seat online in advance...for $60, I'll pass and try my luck at the check-in counter and/or gate. It doesn't always work, but I have a 70 percent success rate at moving my seat at the airport so I can sit with my husband.
At the end of the day, personal finance is all about finding ways to budget for the things that matter most to you. Travel is that thing for me, but now I'm curious — what do you prioritize in your spending? Share your passions in the comments below!
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