Travel Savings 101: How I Stashed Money to Travel Indefinitely

Last Updated on July 12, 2020

A man who spent his travel savings to see the world sits atop Mooney Falls in Havasupai Falls, Arizona

Travel Savings 101: How I Stashed Money to Travel Indefinitely

 

Life in my late-20s wasn’t going as planned. I was a travel-hungry restaurant worker with $31,000 in debt and nothing in my savings account. I spent my days working an increasingly frustrating job, and I was unsure if I’d ever lead a life that inspired me.

Long-term travel had been a goal of mine since high school. I wanted to wander the earth freely and at my own pace, climbing mountains, meeting new people, and trying strange food. This life sounded great but was more of a daydream than a possibility.

Finally, I became fed up with the direction my life was headed and decided to make some drastic lifestyle changes. I had to, or I was going to lose my mind.

18 months and a complete lifestyle transformation later, I’d paid off my debt, filled my savings account, quit my job, started a travel blog, and hit the road.

If you’re ready to take control of your finances, watch your travel savings grow, and start exploring the world on your own terms, this post is for you. 

I’m going to share the exact methods and hacks I used to help make travel a part of my everyday life. If you want the same for yourself, remember this: the process might be discouraging at times, but it’ll all be worth it in the end.

Here’s how to get started:

Take an Honest Look at the Big Picture

Disclaimer: No matter how intimidating and discouraging your ‘Big Picture’ may seem, traveling the world is yours if you want it. With enough planning and perseverance, anyone can save money and travel. Mental barriers preventing us from achieving our goals are crippling and must be torn down immediately.

Good, now that we’re on the same page, let’s look at the makeup of ‘The Big Picture’.

Travel Goals

Having a specific idea of your style of travel will give you the structure to start planning and researching your potential destinations. Where exactly do you want to go? What are your biggest goals for your travels? How long do you want your journey to last? When is your target date to start traveling?

Start mapping out a dream itinerary, as it will serve as motivation along the way.

Do Some Research

Studying the basics of your target travel destinations will save you a mess of trouble in the future. Will you need to apply for a visa to visit certain countries? Do you need a permit for your upcoming dream hike? What does a typical meal or hotel room cost where you want to travel?

The internet has most of the answers, now it’s your responsibility to find them and start preparing.

Map Out the Finances

Now it’s time to answer the most important question of them all:

What is this all going to cost?

For me, I tend to choose destinations where travel costs roughly $40 a day. Some people do it cheaper, and some spend more. Do some research, calculate a comfortable daily figure, and give yourself a target number to work towards.

If you want to travel for six months at $50 a day, aim to save up a minimum of $9000 (180 days x $50). I highly recommend adding 20% to your final figure to give yourself some financial padding. In this scenario, a good target number for savings is $10,800.

Next, do some simple math to find out how much you need to save every month until you leave. (Target Travel Savings ÷ Months Until Your Travel). Keeping your finances organized now will save you from cutting your trip short later.

Start Tying Up Loose Ends

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Ben Franklin

Life is complicated, and travel rarely comes easy. Identify roadblocks that stand between you and your trip, and start finding solutions.

Do you have a pet that will need to be taken care of while you’re gone? Is your boss willing to give you the time off to travel? Do your loved ones have any issues with the trip you’re planning? Do you need to rent/sublet your house out while you’re gone?

Almost any problem that presents itself will have a solution if you’re creative enough. Start figuring out answers now, not a week before you leave. That rarely ends up well.

Commit to Growing Your Travel Savings

Do whatever it takes to make your travel savings vision a reality. Don’t cut corners along the way, and don’t let doubt or failures dictate the path you’re on.

A good hard look at your ‘Big Picture’ will give you an idea of what you need to accomplish to start traveling the world. Keep your finances organized throughout the process, stay the course, and good things will fall into place.

Make a List of Your Monthly Expenses

Every. Single. One.

Many of us live in a culture where success is measured in possessions rather than experiences, which encourages us to spend beyond our means. When I was broke and in debt, I was just another consumer recklessly spending money because it felt good.

Here’s a glimpse of what my monthly financial obligations looked like in 2015, the year I decided to start saving to travel the world:

Housing and Associated Spending

  • Rent/TV/Internet/Utilities: $1035

Debt

  • Car Loan/Student Loan/Credit Card Interest: $470 monthly payments on $31,000 of debt

Groceries, etc.

  • Food/Beer/Dog Food: $330

Recurring Expenses

  • Car Insurance/Phone Bill/Gym/Netflix, etc.: $180

Miscellaneous Expenses

  • Restaurants/Bars/Events/Online Purchases/Gas/Haircuts: $725

And the Grand Total is:

$2740 a month! Or $32,880 a year.

And I was working in a restaurant making about $35,000 a year, after-tax, and I was $31,000 in debt.

My financial situation wasn’t ideal for a life of travel.

I was living paycheck to paycheck and treading financial waters. My debt seemed inevitable, and I dreaded receiving emails from my bank. A lot of things needed to change very quickly if I was going to start traveling.

If you want to start saving for travel, break down every detail of your finances, as I did. Open up your bank statements and immerse yourself in them. Write down and categorize every last monthly expense, and ask yourself, “Do I really need to be spending all this money?”

Reprioritize Everything

A happy yellow lab peeking his head out the door of a camper van in front of Crater Lake, Oregon

Save money, live in a van

 

After examining my monthly expenses, I had some soul searching to do.

Am I really spending over a hundred dollars a week dining out at restaurants and drinking at bars? Why did I sign a two-year contract for 200+ channels of satellite TV? Why did I buy a $13,000 car when I didn’t have any money for a down payment?

Ask yourself the same types of questions. And don’t be gentle.

Once you have a clear picture of your spending, its time to take control of your finances.

But how?

Let’s take a look.

Housing

For most of the world, housing is our most significant monthly expense. If you’re willing to get creative, however, we can drastically slash our monthly housing costs.

Do you have an extra bedroom in your house/apartment that you can rent out? Can you find a more affordable neighborhood to live in? Can you move back in with your parents while you get your finances sorted out?

The more sacrifices you’re willing to make with your housing, the more money you’ll put in your travel savings. It’s simple.

My solution was to sublet my apartment and live out of my camper van for my last few months before I began to travel. This change instantly saved me an extra $1000 a month. Life in the van was liberating and exhilarating and added value to my life.

Recurring Expenses

Now it’s time to ask yourself some questions about those pesky bills that arrive month after month.

Can you find a cheaper monthly plan for your mobile phone? When was that last time you shopped around for a better insurance rate? Do you really need your gym membership? Are you willing to get rid of your satellite, cable, or internet TV contract?

Start slashing these monthly expenses, and don’t be shy about it.

Every bill you eliminate or reduce is a huge victory. This extra money you save can now be added to your savings, which will grow faster ever than before. By the time I was ready to travel, I’d said goodbye to my satellite TV and internet contracts, all gas/electric/water bills, Netflix, and Hulu.

I was saving around $200 a month or $2400 a year by cutting out expenses, which is two whole months of international travel on my budget.

Miscellaneous Expenses

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the days when my spending habits were wild and untamed:

After work, I had a habit of visiting the neighborhood bar, sipping craft beers, pumping money into the jukebox, and buying rounds of drinks for my coworkers. When I wasn’t working, I found myself at Denver’s most expensive restaurants, spending cash aggressively. Instead of saving for long-term travel, I’d fly across the country for a concert or a football game instead.

Yes, life was exciting, but it held me back from what I really wanted: to see the world.

So, I cut back on restaurants, expensive entertainment, and other luxuries immediately. It worked.

Instead of going to the bar after work, I’d go home, spend time with my girlfriend, and get a good night of sleep. My lavish visits to pricy restaurants turned into cooking gourmet meals at home. The expensive concerts and football games became a thing of the past.

So, next time you have the impulse to spend as I did, give it some thought first. Analyze what you really want and be honest with yourself about whether you truly need it. Don’t pass up on everything, just cut back on the spending that is keeping you from saving for travel.

Give Yourself a Strict Budget

A bowl of Chinese noodles in a spicy broth with meat and vegetables

A meal out like this costs at least $8 in the U.S., but only $1.50 in China

 

Budgeting isn’t as painful and complicated as it sounds. I promise.

Once you’ve dissected your finances and lowered your monthly costs, you’ll need to give yourself boundaries to keep control of your spending.

I began to treat my monthly bills — rent, utilities, insurance, cell phone, etc. — as fixed monthly expenses, and excluded them from my budget. I got these expenses as low as I could, put them on autopay, and ignored them.

My budget focused on the day to day spending that I could control.

Think gas for your car, groceries, restaurants, bars, concert tickets, sporting events, impulse buys, clothing, etc.

Give yourself a monthly limit (mine was $600) and record your spending on a piece of paper at the end of each day. Writing down your expenses will force you to relive and rethink every purchase you make.

My ambitious budget became a game for me, especially towards the end of the month. If I was spending more than I should, I rode my bike more often, ate more free meals at work, and reshaped the way I shopped at the grocery store. I changed my life to fit my budget.

Tracking and controlling your spending is a gratifying way to create healthy financial habits and put you in control of your destiny to travel.

Attack Your Debt Relentlessly

Let’s face it, owing money to a bank is a complete drag.

At my financial worst, I was tens of thousands of dollars in debt and barely able to make my minimum $470 in car, credit card, and student loan payments. Traveling the world while owing so much money just didn’t feel right.

So, I began paying off my debt immediately, as quickly as I could. Every penny I earned went straight to paying off the banks, and I erased $31,000 of debt in 15 months. It was hard at times but was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

Be vigilant in your quest to eradicate your debt. Make the choice to stop shelling out your hard-earned money to banks every month. 

Pay off your debt with the highest interest rate first and the lowest interest rate last.

You don’t need to pay off all of your debt before you travel, but remember this: your debt will follow you across the world, and it will be waiting for you when you get home. The less you owe, the longer you will travel.

Work Your Ass Off

A smiling grey-haired Chinese candy vendor on a busy street corner

Work hard with a smile on your face

 

Now that you’re focused on lowering your expenses and paying off your debt, it’s time to start making more money.

My solution? To work as much as I possibly could without driving myself crazy. I asked my boss for more hours, worked the shifts people didn’t want, and stayed late to make extra money. I got a bit exhausted and cranky at times, but it was all part of my plan to travel the world.

If you earn a salary or aren’t able to pick up more hours at your job, there are plenty more ways to stack up some extra cash.

Ask for a Raise

Your boss isn’t going to approach you and offer you more money any time soon, so be the one to start the conversation. Put together a proposal explaining why you deserve a raise and put your boss on the spot. Even a small raise can make a huge difference in the long run.

Get a Second (or Third) Job

Boss won’t give you more hours? Didn’t get the raise you wanted? No problem, just go out and find another way to make extra money. Lyft, Uber, DoorDash, and GrubHub are great ways I’ve earned money in the past. The best part? You get to choose your own hours.

Find Odd Jobs

Someone out there needs your help and wants to give you money. You can link up with them on Craigslist, NextDoor, or any number of community-based websites. I’ve found well-paying gigs landscaping and house-sitting with little to no effort. These jobs usually pay cash and are low stress.

Make Extra Money Online

There are many websites out there where you can make a few extra dollars from the comfort of your couch. The payouts will never be huge, but a few bucks a day can add up fast. Some of my favorites are Swagbucks, Amazon Mechanical Turk, and UserTesting.

Sell Your Old Stuff

Post your unwanted belongings on Craigslist, eBay, or just have a good old fashioned garage sale. Selling these old belongings will earn you some extra money and go a long way in helping declutter your life before you start traveling.

Get out there, work hard, and earn more money! It’s simple. A good work ethic and the right mindset will create financial opportunities, even after you start traveling.

Plan’ No Spend Days’

A man facing the camera standing on top of Mount Lincoln in Colorado

Money-saving tip: get outside, do free stuff

 

‘No Spend Days’ are my favorite way of controlling my spending.

When I was starting to grow my savings account, I would implement at least one day a week where I wasn’t allowed to spend any money. No coffee. No snacks. No restaurants. No Amazon purchases. No gas in my car. No beer. No groceries. Nothing.

Choosing not to spend reminded me that I was in complete control of my money.

Up for a challenge? Stock your fridge full of groceries and see how many consecutive ‘No Spend Days’ you can pull off. After four or five without spending a penny, you’ll realize that you don’t need to spend to live a fulfilling life.

My girlfriend, Keri, I occasionally planned ‘No Spend Dates’ where we would fill a backpack with food, a hammock, and a frisbee. We would wander around town carefree knowing that we didn’t need to spend money to enjoy each other’s company.

Leave your wallet at home once in a while. It’s healthy to let your money know who’s boss.

Buy Used (Not New)

The ‘No Spend Days’ won’t last forever. Sooner or later, you’ll have to make a purchase or two, and that’s fine. My advice? Start your search by looking for a used option first.

With some patience and due diligence, you can likely find what you’re looking for at a fraction of its ‘brand new’ price. Scour eBay, Craigslist, or Letgo and keep your eyes peeled for a bargain. You’ll be surprised at how much money you can save.

I saved about $1000 on my fully loaded MacBook Pro by purchasing it used off of Craigslist. It works perfectly, and I’ve never had an issue with it. I didn’t get the deal right away, though. I had to search Craigslist every day for a couple of weeks until I found what I was looking for.

You may not always find what you’re looking for when buying used, but when you do, it feels pretty damn good. Be patient and willing to shop in ways that aren’t always the most convenient, and you’ll save a lot of money in the process.

Reconsider Your Car

A man riding his bike down the street in Chengdu, China

Riding your bike = massive savings

 

Cars are expensive and entirely unnecessary for many people. For those of you who don’t have cars, well done. You’re already saving yourself loads of money.

Unless you need your car for work or personal reasons, you might want to consider selling it. The money you can save by going carless will make a huge difference.

According to NerdWallet, “for vehicles driven 15,000 miles a year, average ownership costs added up to about $8,469 per year in 2017.” For me, that amounts to seven months of international travel.

But, if I sell my car, how will I get places?

  • Ride a bike
  • Take the bus
  • Take the metro
  • Carpool with a friend
    • Walk
    • Run
    • Skateboard
    • Hitchhike

You get the point.

Need some more convincing? Check out this extremely well-informed, slightly aggressive rant against car ownership to nudge you in the right direction.

Saving money is about making sacrifices, but for many giving up their car is a choice they are not willing to make. Those who make the bold choice to go carless? Well, they’ll take their travel savings game to the next level.

Collect Interest, Don’t Pay it

Let me remind you once again: Debt is the worst. Instead of giving banks your hard-earned money, be the one who collects interest. Your money should be working for you and not the other way around.

Once you have your debt under control, put a little money aside every month into a medium-risk investment account. It will grow steadily and earn your interest over the long run.

I’ve been putting a small amount of money into a Vanguard Roth IRA retirement account, which earns an average of 7% interest every year. I don’t plan on dipping into this money until I retire, but it serves as an emergency fund in case I run into any problems.

I utilize easy-to-use websites like Betterment and Stash for my more short term investments.

Earn & Save Airline Miles for Future Travel

Paying for expensive flights isn’t budget-friendly and can hinder future travel plans, but luckily, there’s an easy way to earn airline miles that may allow you to fly for free.

While I was saving and paying off debt, I was also busy accumulating hundreds of thousands of airline miles, which essentially allow me to fly for free. Thanks to these miles I built up, I haven’t paid for a flight in over a year. This might sound too good to be true, but it’s not. I promise.

So, how can I earn free airline miles, then?

The best way is through credit card signup bonuses. Banks offer bonuses of anywhere between 30,000-80,000 miles if you meet their minimum spending requirements of the first few months of the card.

As a point of reference to the value of miles, I just booked a one-way flight from the U.S. to China for only 22,000 miles.

A few of my favorite travel credit cards are:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred
  • Capital One Venture Rewards

But, wait! There is one rule that you absolutely must follow along the way: pay off your balance in full every single month!

If you do this, you’ll never pay interest. Credit card companies are able to give away these generous signup bonuses because people tend to spend beyond their means, build up debt, and pay massive interest every month. Don’t be one of those people.

Bonus Travel Savings Tip: Learn From the Best

I would love to give you a long list of financial resources that I recommend, but the truth is that I get the vast majority of my advice from one place: The Mr. Money Mustache Financial Blog

Mr. Money Mustache is a man so frugal, that he retired at 30 years old. He’s created a loyal following by combining humor, savvy, and innovative financial advice. His blog was instrumental in my financial transformation.

Be Patient and Watch Your Travel Savings Grow

My transformation from a broke waiter to a world traveler did not happen overnight. It took a couple of years of planning, habit changing, and hard work to materialize fully.

If you want to save money and travel the world, learn to embrace a slow and steady approach as you get your finances in line with your aspirations. New habits take time to develop, and money doesn’t always come easily. There will be times when you get frustrated and exhausted with the process.

Stay the course, and keep focused. All the hard work, budgeting, scrimping, and saving will reward you with travel sooner than you think.

You’ll thank yourself for sticking it out when you’re happily exploring our beautiful planet without a worry in the world.

10 Comments

    1. Yeah, he’s a serious expert in being frugal. And such a great writer too! He totally changed the way I look at money. Wish I could abide by his principles all the time, but I just like eating out at restaurants too much. Gotta spoil yourself occasionally.

  1. Thank you for a rational, real-world article about saving money and breaking down debt. I find too often I read these only to see the person’s way of paying down their debt was that their parents bought them a house and pay their bills, so they could contribute 90% of their income to their student loans.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Ryan. Yeah, I prefer living in a van to asking for a handout from the parents (I never would ask them in the first place anyways). A lot of people don’t realize that if they make a few small sacrifices and lifestyle changes, they can get out of debt and see the world as well. They just have to revamp their relationship with money, which isn’t as hard as it sounds. I tried to give as accurate and honest breakdown of how I got to where I am today. No riff-raff or misleading the reader, that’s not going to help anyone. I’m really glad you enjoy the post, man!

  2. I sold (almost) everything and am traveling full tine for the time being. We did keep some items in storage because we will return at some point and will need pots, pans, etc. But in the months leading up to the move, I got ruthless in assessing and selling items I barely used: kitchenware, clothing, souvenirs, etc. It actually felt really liberating each time those items left my house and cash came in. And it was less stuff to pack up!

    1. The weight that lifts off your shoulders is so freeing once you start purging your belongings, isn’t it? I’ve really come to believe that living a minimalist lifestyle is the healthiest and happiest way to go about life. Fewer possessions means more time to focus on yourself, your loved ones, and the adventures ahead. Thanks for the feedback, Deah and happy travels.

    1. That’s my goal one day: to completely support myself with only my computer and a WiFi connection. So, good for you… carving out a life like that is definitely not easy. You’re living the dream (assuming you enjoy your work).

  3. Too true! Us who choose to travel without being super rich make sacrifices because we prioritise these experiences. Some people don’t get that. The difference is, their 56″ Sony plasma TV won’t leave them that many happy memories, but, Alzheimer’s permitting, my life of travel will.

    I love your no spend day concept too. You are right that it is so liberating and unburdening to leave your wallet at home when you go out. Thanks to my style of travel, I frequently manage to have no spend days while travelling. Amazing!

    1. I’ll take a new, exciting, and sometime uncomfortable destination to a plasma screen TV any day of the week. And if I really feel the need to watch something on a big screen TV, it’s not hard to find one. Plus, Netflix on the computer is almost always an option as well.

      I need to get back to my ‘no spend’ concept. Probably should take a page out of your book and volunteer more. Free room and board coupled with rewarding experiences is a hard lifestyle to beat.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, my friend. May we remain forever frugal.

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