“You’re traveling for how long?!”
“What about bills?!”
“How can you possibly afford to do this?!”
These are all questions that we heard many times before hitting the open road for our gap year. For those hoping to take their own gap year and wondering how to finance and plan for it, this is for you:
How We Saved
Live Off of One Salary
Our decision to travel full-time was made almost a full year before we hit the road, and as such it involved a lot of saving and budgeting. Once we set a date for our departure from Beijing, we put in place a new plan to save money. Every month, we used Sasha’s salary from Wall Street English to pay rent, bills, buy groceries, and pay for occasional dinners out, as well as some of our adventures in China. As such, we were able to save every penny (or fen in China) of Rachel’s salary, which usually came out to about $1,500 a month. Thanks to doing that for a year, we built up a nice stash to fund our planned backpacking trip around SE Asia.
Pick Up Extra Work
In addition to working at WSE, we both held down other part-time jobs throughout the year – teaching in the mornings at a university, meeting with private students, and working for an international school on the weekend. Through this additional income, we were able to have a ton of fun in Beijing and still save some extra money. Far from living a frugal life, we went out for meals, drinks, or shows multiple times a week. Sasha got to splurge on things he loves (a Go Pro), as did Rachel (gettin’ her hair and nails did). We were also able to fund our trip to the Philippines, and set aside enough for our epic 3-month trip back to the US.
We originally thought that we’d only travel for about seven months total, but in the end we spent a whopping 14 months on the road. How did that happen? Well, we somehow ended up saving even more than we had expected, even after doing all of those things mentioned above. In short, we did a great job managing our finances as a couple over the year, took advantage of various opportunities to pad our income, and stuck to the plan diligently.
Rent Out Your Room/Cash in Benefits
As we decided to leave Beijing for good, we went ahead and rented out our room for the last three months of our contract in our apartment. This extra income went towards all of our flights around the US, back to Beijing, and onto Kunming, and it helped free up some more money for the things we love – concerts, adventures, and raging. Speaking of Kunming, our last month’s pay from WSE plus our pension payments ensures that we could cover six months of rent and living costs for a couple of months there even working a minute. Obviously, that helped a lot with the transition. We also got to cash in on the money that had been automatically deducted from our checks for health insurance over the past year, giving us even more savings to life off of in our new home.
To summarize, we’re no finance experts by any means. Sasha gave up on business school at MSU because it bored him to tears, and Rachel can’t do math to save her life. We’re also both much better at spending money than saving it. We haven’t exactly cut corners over the past year, and we’ve actually lived what many would consider to be a pretty lavish lifestyle – we had a maid clean our apartment once a week, we went out for nice meals all the time, we kept a full bar stocked at home, we took tons of daytrips, and we even got in a tropical vacation.
Our experience just goes to show you how great of an opportunity teaching English in China can be for a young couple. It’s hard to imagine that a few short years ago, we were both under-employed, on food stamps, and begging our parents to help us pay rent in the dirty college house where we were staying. Thanks to a few years of teaching here and one year of actual budgeting and planning, we were able to set out on a 14-month trip before moving to one of the coolest cities in China to start a new adventure. Which brings us to the planning aspect.
How We Planned
Obviously, packing your life up into a backpack and traveling for a year entails some planning. We started thinking about and planning this trip as soon as we decided to take it in the fall of 2012. That being said, we also wanted our adventure in SE Asia to be spontaneous and open-ended, kind of like a set opening “Tweezer” at a Phish show. Here are some of the details in bullet points about how we planned our long, strange trip:
3 Months in America
- We booked all of our flights as soon as we could. Traveling from China to the US can be expensive, as can flying around America. Thanks to countless hours scouring various websites, we managed to get decent fares on most of our flights.
- As lovers of live music, we had to wait for official tour dates from the bands we adore to set our plans in stone. Our trip in the US was bookended by music – we flew in to see Phish in San Francisco and then flew out after seeing Umphrey’s McGee in Milwaukee.
- We looked at the map, decided where we wanted to go, and figured out the logistics of it all. Most importantly, we noted where we would easily be able to crash with friends or family and the places where we’d have to pay for accommodation.
- For our trip back in the US, we planned ahead so as to take advantage of the incredibly cheap Megabus. Without a car, and not wanting to spend all of our money on flights, this was the best option. We traveled from LA to Vegas for $2 each, did Detroit > Philly > New York > Boston for about $10 each, and then got to Chicago from the D for $1 each. If you can buy the tickets months in advance, these fares are available.
- We also rented a car to do the Las Vegas > National Parks > Moab > Denver part of our trip and bought the year-long pass for the parks. Without the cheap rental car and the annual pass, this part of the trip could have been much more expensive.
8 Months in SE Asia
- All that we planned in terms of our SE Asia itinerary was which countries we wanted to visit, the order we wanted to visit them in, and the logistics of visas.
- We planned to travel by bus or train whenever possible, and only fly if it is absolutely necessary or about the same cost as overland transport. For the flights we did end up booking (4 in total on a 7 month trip), we used Air Asia and took advantage of their super cheap fares.
- In terms of accommodation, we planned to rely mainly on hostels. Hostels get a bad rap in our opinion, and we’ve had tons of great experiences staying in them. Actually, we much prefer a hostel to a hotel.
- As we were going to be in Cambodia during Christmas and New Year’s, we went ahead and set those plans in stone a bit early. These are very popular times to travel and hot spots can be booked up months in advance.
- We wanted this trip to be loose and free, so we went into each country with only a few ideas about places we really wanted to see and things we really wanted to experience.
1 Month in China
- Thanks to cheap flights, we flew into Hong Kong. With a bit of money left and a few weeks before we could move into our new place in Kunming, we decided to go overland.
- When planning our route, we picked a few regions of China and ensured we’d be able to do it all by train or bus.
- We Couchsurfed in Hong Kong (an expensive place to stay), crashed with friends in Shenzhen, and did hostels for all of the other places.
Of course, our trip didn’t turn out exactly as we had planned it. Originally we had planned to spend another month in SE Asia visiting Borneo and heading to the Philippines again, but the lure of Phish in Detroit, a family vacation in northern Michigan, and our first American music festival in 3 years brought us home for the month of July. In the end, we decided we didn’t want to go right back to a year of living and teaching in China after nearly a full year of backpacking across SE Asia.
How We Budgeted
Obviously, one of the most important things when planning such a long trip is figuring out how much you can spend on it. As mentioned above, we actively saved money for over a year, took on plenty of extra work in Beijing, and cashed in our benefits from our former employer. Here’s a bit of insight into how we budgeted this 14-month trip:
- For the America portion, we had each saved close to $5,000. With grand plans – both a west and east coast road trip, skydiving, ten national parks, and ten Phish shows – we knew that this wasn’t going to be a cheap adventure. Thankfully, traveling in the States ensured we had plenty of free places to stay.
- For Southeast Asia, we budgeted $1,000 per person, per month. We managed to stick to this budget in some countries, stayed under in one, and went over in a few:
- We kept track of all of our expenses by carrying around a little notebook and constantly writing them down.
*In an effort to cut down on our things we entered the expenses into a spreadsheet so we could toss the notebook. Unfortunately, Sasha’s hard drive crashed and we lost the spreadsheet. This graph doesn’t include S. Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
While it may appear as if we did awful on our budget, you need to consider a few things:
- We had to make computer repairs in Vietnam (two broken screens) and Cambodia (new WiFi card).
- We were in Cambodia for Christmas and New Year’s, so everything was more expensive, we treated ourselves, and we bought each other gifts.
- We did a few big things that blew the budget a bit, such as an Easy Rider motorbike tour in Vietnam and renting a nice apartment in Bangkok for a week.
- Sasha still had a check coming in every month for his blogging work, so we ended up having a bit more at our disposal than we budgeted for.
As for the rest of the trip (southern Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia), we never tallied up our total budget. Thanks to things like a scuba diving certification and Sasha’s Indonesian class, we certainly went over our budget. That being said, we ended up with enough cash left over to pay rent for 6 months in Kunming and get us on our feet there.
Hopefully this has helped you get a better idea of how to save for, plan, and budget for a gap year trip. Now, with all that boring stuff out of the way it’s time for some travel inspiration. Check out the highlights of our gap year trip and then start planning your own!