The time has come, yet again: I’m heading off on a big trip this summer! And whenever I announce I’m going on a trip, it’s only ever a short time before I’m asked the inevitable question: how can you afford it? How do you have so much money to travel?
In the last two years, I have traveled extensively around the world. I’ve saved up thousands of dollars in order to do so. In the two years since my college graduation, I’d estimate that I’ve saved somewhere between $12,000 and $15,000 in order to travel (I’m including my UK visa costs in this too). And no, I don’t pull in a huge 100k salary—at all of my jobs I’ve made either minimum wage or slightly higher.
So how do I afford to travel? The answer is pretty simple: I have made travel my number one priority. It is has sometimes been the only thing I’ll spend money on. I’ve skimped on everything but the basics in order to save up money to travel. And the sacrifices I’ve made have been so unbelievably worth it.
I’m privileged and lucky that I’ve lived in the US (and now live in the UK), where jobs are relatively easy to get, and where the currency is a globally strong one. I’ve always worked and I’ve always been saving.
And because the question will inevitably come up: no, my parents don’t pay for my travels. No, I’m not secretly a millionaire, and no, I don’t have a trust fund (my family reading this is crying with laughter now).
When I left on my first independent trip to Europe in 2011, my parents gave me $50 to spend on a calling card to call them from abroad (I spent it on beer. Sorry guys). Yes, they had set aside a big chunk of savings for my study abroad program in Nottingham, and I used that money to travel and I’m not embarrassed to admit it—it was a wonderful gift. I also received another large gift from a family friend that again funded lots of my travels that year.
But since I finished college, I’ve pretty much been paying my own way. And I’ve done that by saving big amounts to spend on trips. My parents have supported me in other ways: giving me meaningful Christmas and birthday presents (like a beautiful new suitcase), letting me live at home rent-free (more on that below), dropping me off and picking me up at the airport no matter how early or late it is. That’s how they’ve helped and encouraged me to travel.
So now that that disclaimer is out of the way, here’s how I’ve saved thousands of dollars to travel the world.
I’ve always been goal-oriented, and so I’ve always known that saving money for a trip will be worth the sacrifices. I create budgets by sitting down with a notebook and calculator, adding up my fundamental expenses (rent, bills, food, student loans) and seeing how much I have leftover from my monthly income (after tax). From that, I estimate how much I can afford to save for travel. I give myself a set amount of spending money per month, and stick to it. In October 2015, I notoriously spent only $17 on non-essential expenses (and $11 of that was on beer). Every other penny I saved for travel. This is what I call “brutal budgeting.” It’s brutal and hard but it’s worth it.
I haven’t done this since I moved to the UK, but after payday I used to transfer money to my savings account and once it was there, I wouldn’t touch it. Sometimes I only use cash and refuse to use cards. When I’m out of cash, I’m out of money to spend. Something I’ve frequently done on trips and I do everyday now is writing down every purchase I make. Whether I pay by cash or card, whether it’s a weekly shop at the grocery store or drinks on a night out, I always always write it down. And more often than not, if I’m tempted by an impulse buy, the fact that I’ll have to get out my notebook and write it down usually sways me to just not buy it (due to laziness). I then know exactly how much money is going out every month, and what I’m spending it on.
I’ve always worked lots of hours at all my jobs. I’ve had two (and even three) jobs going at once. If you work full-time, getting a second job is a great place to start earning another income that you can save on travel. Even if it’s only one shift a week, it’s money that will all go into the travel fund. It will give you a huge income boost.
If you want to make a lot of money fast? Work in the food service industry. Yeah, it sucks. But in the US, you can make loads of money in tips as a server or bartender. As a server, I worked irregular hours, which meant that I didn’t have a lot of time to spend money on socializing (because I never had a weekend). I also lucked out since my work paid the full minimum wage (and Minnesota’s minimum wage is one of the highest in the country), and I made tips on top of that. Depending on the place, you can sometimes get free food at work—I’ve saved a fortune eating lunch for free at work in the past six months. If you already have a full-time 9-5 job, it’ll be fairly easy to schedule, since restaurants/bars are almost always busier on evenings and weekends. Working in the service industry is a great way to save up money fast.
I also never said no to any sort of gig that could make me money. I’ve taught yoga lessons to get some extra cash (and/or beer). Over the years I’ve more or less taken every odd job I could find: housesitting, petsitting, babysitting (never again), painting, gardening, shoveling snow, dogwalking, etc. I once dug a 12-inch deep trench through a neighbor’s backyard for some extra cash. That money definitely made a difference for my funds.
One of the reasons I was able to save up so much money so fast was because after graduation I moved back home and lived with my parents (it’s not an option for everyone, I know). This cut my essential expenses to basically zero, since my parents were wonderful enough to not charge me for rent, utilities, food, car insurance, or laundry. I never could have saved up as much as I did if I was paying rent and living on my own. So thanks Mom and Dad!!
Now that I don’t live with my parents and live independently, I do my best to minimize my essential expenses. For grocery shopping, I plan meals for the week before I shop so that I don’t buy food, not eat it, and waste it. Meat is generally expensive, so I’ve tried to buy less meat—in college I sometimes felt like a vegetarian because of how rarely I bought meat. I always buy generic food brands rather than the regular brand (besides Skippy peanut butter). I’ve dabbled with growing my own herbs/fruits/veggies (mainly basil and sometimes tomatoes).
I’ve learned to cook efficiently by cooking big meals and then eating the rest for leftovers for lunch throughout the week so that I’m not buying lunch. I buy in bulk when it makes sense and freeze items if necessary. I try to not give in to cravings and instead eat what I have at home. I sometimes clip coupons—for food or for other essential products. I’ve invested in a good water bottle so that I never have to buy bottled water. When I lived in Iowa for college, I saved and recycled my bottles/cans and cashed them in for money (I spent it on booze, not travel, but oh well).
I’ve always been a saver not a spender, and penny-pinching is basically second nature to me now. I stopped making impulse buys (I’m looking at you, Target) and tried to only buy something when I needed it. I make lists before I go shopping to stop myself from deviating, and like I said already, I keep a notebook of all the money I spend. I keep a jar for loose change and cash it in before a trip, which can especially add up when you make tips at work. I always look for money on the ground and even when people think I’m crazy, I found $20 on the floor of the bar on two separate occasions. Who’s laughing now?!
When I have fundamental expenses I can’t get around, I always try to reduce them. I buy clothes on sale or at thrift stores instead of full price and brand new (hello Savers, I miss you). When I had a car (even though I was just paying gas money), I would try to use my car less and use public transportation instead (biking is another great option). When I worked in downtown St. Paul and knew there was an event that would mean ludicrous parking charges, I’d take public transportation to and from work. I never used my A/C when I was driving slow to save money on gas. I don’t have a car in England right now, so my monthly transportation costs are zero as I walk everywhere in York.
I stopped buying magazines and newspapers, and instead used the internet for news (I’m paying for wifi after all). I don’t buy books new anymore and instead wait a few months and buy them for cheap on Amazon (if I desperately need them), or use my local library. I try to cut back on my utilities bills by hang-drying clothes instead of using the dryer sometimes, not using the lights during the day, taking shorter showers, and unplugging anything that I don’t frequently use.
Any expense that isn’t absolutely essential is basically gone. I’ve never had cable, and now that I live in England I don’t have a TV, so I don’t have to pay the BBC fees—I watch shows and anything else online. I use my family’s Netflix account so there’s no cost for that (and to be honest, UK Netflix is kind of shit). I gave up my gym membership after graduation and instead started running outside and doing yoga and Pilates at home. Sometimes I would get my family or friends to take me to their gym as a guest.
I don’t have data on my phone and have saved an insane amount of money beause of it—there is wifi literally everywhere these days! Since I have wifi at home and wifi at work, and the city of York has free wifi in the town center, I just really don’t need to pay for data at all. This automatically saves me £10-20 per month on my phone bill.
One of the major ways I’ve saved money is I re-evaluated my spending and socializing lifestyle. I’ve never been someone who cares about the latest trends (I have clothes that are literally 10 years old and I’m still wearing them) so I’ve never tried to “keep up with the Joneses.” But the main thing I realized was that every time I hung out with friends, it revolved around spending money. Meeting for brunch, going out to dinner, getting drinks—it all involves spending money.
So I tried to come up with ways to socialize that didn’t involve spending tons of money. I invited my friends over for a meal and offered to cook for them, or had them over for “porch beers” (beers on the porch, which I love) or drinks at home. We would sometimes have movie nights and stream movies online instead of paying for tickets at a movie theater.
I basically just stopped going out for anything and everything. I don’t drink coffee to begin with, but making coffee at home instead of dropping money at Starbucks is a great way to cut back on spending. I stopped going out for food, basically stopped partying and never went out for drinks (I’m all about the pre-game beforehand), and just never went out ever. If I ever did go out, I only went out with cash so that I didn’t spend more than I wanted to. Did I feel like a hermit sometimes? Yes. Did I get stressed out and lonely sometimes? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I couldn’t have done this sustainably forever—I like going for a casual pint every now and again—but just not going out ever meant I could save so much more money for travel.
Over a year ago, when I quit one of my jobs to travel, one of my bosses asked me (nicely but incredulously) “how can you afford to do this?” I responded by saying: “I work two jobs all the time, I live with my parents, and I never go out.” And I think that pretty much sums up the main ways I saved up since graduation. Now, I basically do all the same things, go out on occasion (always paying with cash!), and work a lot. There’s no secret formula—just brutal budgeting and hard work.
Before I moved to England, I sold a lot of my stuff. For people saving for long-term (6 months+) travel, selling your stuff is one of the best ways to make money: sell your car and save money on insurance and gas, purge your closet and sell your clothes, sell your TV/video games/whatever and use the internet for entertainment, sell movies and books on Amazon, etc. It’s all extra cash for stuff you won’t need long-term.
I also have a great travel credit card that saves me money on flights or hotels by accumulating points. The Chase Sapphire Preferred is awesome, especially if you don’t want to be tied down by a specific airline or hotel chain. I used the huge sign-up bonus on flights and a hotel in Las Vegas for two people—we each paid about $100 left over after all the points were used. I am always trying to be smart with my credit card points and use them when they’ll save me the most.
I wouldn’t have been able to travel as much as I have in the past two years if I wasn’t a budget traveler. Throughout the years, I have learned to travel cheaper and this has stretched my trip budget like nothing else. In the last year or two, I have spent lots of time exploring less expensive regions like Eastern Europe. I always try to book in advance if possible. I try to travel off-season to save money on flights and accommodation, use lots of tricks for booking cheap flights to Europe, and I travel with budget airlines or by train/coach to avoid expensive flights.
I stay at hostels instead of hotels (or sometimes Airbnb). I take public transportation instead of taxis, and walk everywhere I can. I cut back on my food expenses by cooking meals for myself (in hostel kitchens), having picnics, and stretching breakfast/brunch to last for 2 meals. Travel does not necessarily have to be as expensive as you think it is!
I’ve saved up thousands of dollars to travel the world. Travel is my greatest passion, my number one priority, and what I choose to spend my money on. I don’t have a fancy house, a nice car, a huge closet of trendy clothes, or a TV, but I have a passport full of stamps. And for me, the sacrifices I’ve made have all absolutely been worth it in the end. This is an honest post about how I’ve saved up so much money in the last few years—I hope it comes in handy if you plan adventures of your own! Happy travels! 🙂
How do you save money? Any good tips or tricks to add?!