One of the questions I most frequently receive is “How are you able to afford to take a year off to travel, mess around, and not work?” One of the (basically) homeless, alcoholic retirees living on the shores of Lake Mead near Las Vegas put it as such: “Oh, his daddy’s got money, that’s how he’s out here traveling…” Some people honestly can’t seem to comprehend how to afford travel without a trust fund.
So, do you need to have a rich daddy or dead oil tycoon uncle in order to take time off from work to travel? The short answer is no, definitely not. And if I was a Trustafarian, I would’ve moved to Boulder and become a ski bum…
You don’t have to be a Trump kid if you want to know how to afford to travel and keep doing so long-term.
Living out of your vehicle is actually not that expensive like the VanLife movement (or in my case, truck camping), nor is international travel to many countries around the world. Arguably the biggest expense of long-term travel is in foregoing income during that time.
Here are a few thoughts on how to afford to travel, written entirely from my perspective and experience, and probably most applicable to 20-something recent college graduates and young professionals. If you have a mortgage, kids, or are living hand to mouth with minimum wage jobs, I can’t speak to that perspective, but you can probably still take something from my message and thoughts. As a wise man once said, take what is useful and discard what isn’t.
Dealing with Debt
The biggest and most difficult obstacle I have heard among people in my age cohort who have the dream or desire to travel is debt, bar none. Debt is nefarious and debilitating if you are hoping to take a sabbatical from the rat race and can make this type of travel seem impossible.
School loans and college debt is something that can be worked with (interest rates are usually low and payback times are generous, not counting private loans, so you might be best off paying the minimum with savings while traveling), but credit card debt is a whole other beast that will limit your perceived options and keep you in a job or other circumstances that you might not otherwise want to be in.
It hampers what you think is possible and what you can do.
This isn’t a personal finance blog, but if you have dreams of long term travel you must tackle your high-interest debt. It is possible to finance a portion of your dream trip with debt before you return to the working world and pay it off, but I would say it is not advisable to start such a trip with this burden.
So, first and foremost, if you don’t have any debt, keep it that way! And if you do, aggressively pay it off. Forego whatever luxuries you can to get it done. And I buy luxuries, I mean non-necessary spending, so that’s things like Netflix, eating out, nights at the bar, etc. Those are all luxuries. Time to separate needs from wants.
Check out blogs like I Will Teach You To Be Rich, Get Rich Slowly, the Simple Dollar, etc, or some of the best financial literacy books like Your Money or Your Life to get some sound advice on tactics to tackle debt and cut expenses.
Credit cards should always be paid off in full each and every month. They can actually work to your advantage in terms of how to afford travel thanks to cashback, airline miles, hotel points, and more with some of the best travel credit cards. If you’re paying interest on your spending then, well, you’re doing it all wrong. Travel hacking is a game-changer in terms of how to afford travel!
I highly recommend everyone sign up for Mint.com–you can track your spending and income across all accounts and get a long term picture of where your money is going.
Read More: Conquering Debt Mountain
Avoid Lifestyle Inflation
The other big obstacle for twenty-somethings with a longing for long term travel is lifestyle inflation. Many of us go through college like a glorified dirtbag… Living in lousy housing situations, eating top ramen and PB&J, drinking cheap beer, barely working, and lacking the pocket cash to go out and do all the things we want.
But then we graduate. We get an okay job that pays the bills. We go out more, we eat out more, we buy nice things to fill our room in a shared group house.
Then we get a raise at work and some increased responsibilities. We’re really adults now, right? We can up our standard of living a little by moving into a one-bedroom apartment, going out more frequently, buying a nicer car, nicer clothes, and buying slightly more expensive things to fill our apartments… Our lifestyle and spending inflate with our increasing earnings.
In some cases, we’re accustomed to the nice things our parents had, that we recall growing up. The furniture, cars, big house, toys, etc. In most cases, we fail to recognize that that was the culmination of 20 something years of their hard work, not a starter package right out the gate. But we still want to have similarly nice things for ourselves.
Hopefully, at the least, the lifestyle inflation is on par with your increased earnings and has not been leveraged with credit cards and other debt…
Other Things Preventing Travel
Obviously a mortgage, kids, marriage, dogs, and similar things can hamper or derail the possibilities of long term travel. There are plenty of exceptions to this, but if you’re serious about it, I’d try to avoid the aforementioned items.
Mortgage: there’s a reason mort, Latin for death, is part of this word. Seriously. People like to think of a home as an asset, but it’s a liability and is really only an asset if it is actually generating cash flow (which could work to your advantage if you buy a house, and leave it to travel and collect rent above and beyond the monthly mortgage amount).
Kids and Marriage: first and foremost, obviously as a couple, you would both need to be 100% on the same page about going and living in your vehicle or sleeping in cheap hostels in South America.
Kids add another complexity, but there are quite a few families with kids who are out there on the road and doing exceptional things. They are far and above the exception to the rule though. If you are serious about long term travel, I would recommend steering clear for the time being.
Dogs: I love dogs. Well, other people’s dogs. Dogs are a HUGE time and money sink. Not only do they severely hamper your lifestyle as a normal 9-5 working stiff (got to head straight home to walk/feed/whatever my dog) but they also inhibit any long term travel plans you might hope to undertake. Once you start traveling, you can get your animal fix by house sitting, which is free accommodation for caring for someone’s pets as they travel.
If you love the outdoors like me, then things like backcountry climbing or backpacking suddenly becomes more challenging, National Parks are now mostly off-limits, traveling overseas is much more complicated with exposure to new parasites and diseases.
How to Afford Travel
There are countless blogs and “lifestyle design” gurus out there that can show you how to “live the dream”. There’s the old school way where you save up a bunch of money and then take time off to go spend it, or there’s the new school, internet 2.0 way where you build an online business or create some sort of passive income stream that finances your travels each month.
I’ve met fellow dirtbags on the road who manage it by all different means. Some do the seasonal employment gig where they work 6-months out of the year and climb the other half, some do part-time work via the internet a couple of days per week. And some just save up a chunk of change and go for it.
Whether you have the desire to go the 2.0 way, I still highly recommend you check out books like Tim Ferriss’ the Four Hour Work Week or Chris Guillebeau’s the Art of Non-Conformity. These books will get you thinking outside the box, and thinking about what your options might be.
Ultimately, I ended up starting out the old school way, just going off of savings, before ultimately transitioning into various side hustle jobs and then building my blog into a business to sustain my travel indefinitely. That means I can work from anywhere in the world (with internet) and pay to travel while also saving some money. This is the essence of how I get paid to travel the world.
Read More: Save Money for a Trip
How I Afforded to Travel
The gist of my story is that I did nothing special financially-speaking for this trip… I wasn’t planning it for years on end, but it was something floating around in my head. If my job hadn’t come to an end, I’d likely be sitting right there at my old desk.
I socked away a little money every month for some reason. That’s just what you’re supposed to do, I guess.
I was fortunate that I had middle to lower-middle-class parents (divorced), neither of whom are big spenders that saddled themselves with huge credit card debt, so I learned from their example.
I was fortunate to have landed a pretty good job out of college. I graduated with below-average school loans (thanks to two years of community college) and got those loans paid off over the years. I’ve never really racked up too much credit card debt–the one exception being when I spent all my savings while studying abroad and upon returning started racking up debt I couldn’t pay off each month. I’ve been (mostly) responsible with credit and now have a credit score of around 800.
I also managed to avoid major lifestyle inflation. In my working years, I lived in a… how shall we put this? Less than the ideal living situation for many years. It was cheap. I didn’t buy any furniture whatsoever. I used public transportation.
I’m currently living in and driving the same truck I had in high school–an old school 1991 Toyota Pickup. Fortunately, it has low mileage since it was mostly sitting idle while I was living in DC.
That’s not to say I’m someone who has it all figured out and only spends his money wisely. God knows I have spent (and continue to spend) too much of my money on the eating out and drinking side of things. I’m just not a cook, I don’t like it–so take out was always a big expense.
I had gym memberships (both climbing and regular) that I used infrequently. Also, I’ve spent a lot of money on gear and guided instruction over the years… Which is definitely not cheap. But it’s important to identify what areas of spending are important to you and what isn’t, and then ruthlessly cut your spending in those areas that aren’t important.
So, yes, I am absolutely fortunate that things worked out the way they did for me. But ultimately, I think the key to answering the question about how to afford travel, whether it is a huge national park road trip or backpacking overseas on abudget, is to live like a dirtbag even when the money and circumstances don’t dictate that you have to.
Long term travel requires sacrifices–both to save and prepare for it and while you’re actually out there traveling.
The question is: is it worth it to you?
Read Next: How I Get Paid to Travel the World
- Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term Travel
- Tim Ferriss’ the Four Hour Work Week
- Chris Guillebeau’s the Art of Non Conformity
P.S. That shot of all that money up top is actually the equivalent of something like $100 US Dollars. It only looks like a lot of money.
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