Whether you’re taking a weekend trip down the road or a gap year around the world, travel requires money. Obviously, the latter requires a bit more. Throughout our 14-month trip around the US, SE Asia, and China, we were asked countless times – “How do you afford to travel so much?” Prior to our trip, we found ourselves asking several other travelers that exact same question. To most people, it is simply mind-boggling to travel for extended periods of time. The truth is, you don’t need to be a trust-fund kid or a recent lottery winner to set off on that dream trip. Let us show you the way by telling the story of how we saved $25k to travel.
A Travel Revelation
At the end of a 2-week trip to Bali, I was dreading flying back to Beijing. The following exchange occurred between Rachel and I while sipping beers in the pool, taking in the sunset on the small island of Lembongan:
“Why do we have to go back to Beijing?”
“Ummm.. because we have jobs… and an apartment.”
“But what if we didn’t have those things?”
“Where are you going with this?”
Maybe it was the awe-inspiring terraced rice paddies outside of Ubud. Or maybe it was the vibrant, colorful culture of Bali with its daily offerings and serene temples. Actually, it was probably all the Bintang and beachside cocktails. Whatever it was, I didn’t want to go home.
Beijing was great and so were our lives there – nice apartment, cushy job, and a bunch of MF’ing rockstars for friends. There was just so much more out there, and a few vacations a year wasn’t going to cut it. Upon our return from that trip, we had a mission – save enough money in one year to quit our jobs, move out, and take a gap year. We ended up taking off just ten months later and stayed on the road for over a year. Here’s how we did it in ten strategies that you can also implement.
How We Saved $25k to Travel
1. Live Off of One Paycheck
When we decided long-term travel was a goal we were serious about, we were both working as English teachers in Beijing. Our primary gigs were as part-time teachers at Wall Street English. Both of us worked there 4-5 days a week for a total of 25 hours. After taxes, pension plans, and all that boring stuff, we each made about $1,500 a month. The first step in saving money was to live off of one paycheck. Not entirely, but taking care of the essentials – rent, transport, utilities, and groceries. Things like nights out and weekend trips were to be paid for with other income. This turned out to be easier than we expected, which meant one bank account growing sizably every month without any withdrawals.
Obviously, some of our strategies as a couple aren’t going to work so well for a single person. This is one of them. That being said, you could make a conscious effort to save a good chunk of your check. Plus, the rest of the tips will work just as well for singles as they will for couples.
2. Take on Part-Time Jobs
Given the fact that our full-time jobs were already part-time jobs, this was a no-brainer for us. I went back to the university where I had previously worked and picked up two mornings of classes, tutored a bit, and continued contributing to the language blogs. I even did what’s called “white guy in a tie” and got paid to be a fake businessman from New York for a day. Rachel got a sweet Saturday morning gig where she got paid around $40 an hour and also did some side hustles like tutoring and voice recording. This extra work gave us money to keep up our preferred lifestyle – rooftop cocktails, occasional spa days, nice dinners, and short trips around China.
If you’re already working full-time, we realize it might be a bit too much to take on another job. May we recommend teaching English online? If you’re American or Canadian, you can apply for the company we work for. Set your own schedule and make $20 an hour to teach cute little Chinese kids the ABCs. Who knows? You may even decide you want to go teach English in China. And from our experience, you know that can be your golden ticket. Other ideas include doing freelance work – graphic design, copy editing, writing, etc. Or you could always pick up a few shifts in a bar or restaurant. You’ll be busy as hell, but you’ll have a clear goal that you’re working towards.
Other ideas include doing freelance work – graphic design, copy editing, writing, etc. Or you could always pick up a few shifts in a bar or restaurant. You’ll be busy as hell, but you’ll have a clear goal that you’re working towards.
3. Get a Room (or Offer One)
Not sure how you can ever afford a life of travel? First of all, take a step back and see how much your life of non-travel is costing you. While having your own place downtown can be a lot of fun, it also comes with a hefty price tag. If you’re really gung-ho about saving money for travel, bite the bullet and rent out a room somewhere instead. Alternatively, just get a roommate for a few months. Sure, they’ll probably forget to do the dishes once in a while, or they’ll sustain off of McDonald’s that’s been sitting in their room for days (this seriously happened), but it’ll be worth the suffering when you’re sipping that Mai Tai in Thailand. The extra money we got from having a roommate in Beijing added a few thousand bucks to the savings and was a big factor in how we saved $25k to travel.
4. Eat, Drink and Be Merry (at Home)
I want you to do a little experiment next week. Add up all the coffees, snacks, meals, and adult beverages that you purchase. Take a good, hard look at that number. Try to imagine how far that amount of money would go in a place like Vietnam, where the best coffee you’ve ever had never costs a buck, a bowl of pho or a bahn mi comes in at $1-2, and a draft beer is a quarter. Ditch the iced caramel macchiato and make your coffee at home. If you’re an addict like me, get a nice thermos so you can take your precious with you. Make yourself a decent breakfast, take leftovers for lunch, and eat a lot of pasta and veggies for dinner. Your savings account (and your waistline) will thank you.
Just because you’re saving money for a long trip doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your social life. As one of our favorite bands always says – “We like to party, sorry if you don’t.” Another great money-saving tip is keeping a basic bar at home. Grab a few cheap bottles and a simple mixer kit and get your buzz on at home before going out. Or you could just invite your friends over and start the party in your living room. Either option saves you money for travel – hello rooftop cocktails in Bangkok!
5. Be a Happy Hour Hero
When you do decide to go out, be smart about it. Happy Hours exist for a reason. Catch a buzz early and head for the doors when prices go up. You’ll save money and won’t be hungover at work the next day! This is true for more than just bars – museums often have free days, restaurants usually have daily specials, and there are often advanced tickets for shows or sporting events that cost less. If you want to travel later, you’d better be a bargain hunter now. Plus, who really wants to sip $20 cocktails poured by a pretentious hipster bartender who expects a 25% tip? That’s a full day of fresh juices and seafood in Indonesia!
During our 10-month sprint to save money, we were professional Happy Hour Heroes. We even managed to lock down a routine where we drank free beer, had 2-for-1 cocktails and steaks, and then went to a 1/2 off movie with street beers. This may not be possible in every part of the world (more on that later), but there are definitely bargains out there that will add a nice boost to your travel fund.
6. Hop on the Bus, Gus
People love their cars, especially Americans. Americans are obsessed with their cars. So much so that they’d rather pay a ton in insurance, repairs, parking, and gas just to be able to drive them around. Public transportation is terrifying – it’s for peasants and it smells like pee. Sure, you may catch a whiff of something foul and sit next to a babbling crackhead on the EL in Chicago, but the money you’ll save by ditching your Freedom Machine will easily pay for the most expensive item on your trip – that initial flight to an exotic place. If the bus and subway are too much for you, trade your car for a bike or a scooter. If you’re in a place where it’s available, hit up Uber Pool and Lyft Line. For every random weirdo you end up riding with, just picture yourself floating down a river with a cold beer in hand in Laos.
Twice a week, I packed in like a sardine to ride the Beijing subway across town to my part-time job. I easily could have taken a cab with my salary there, but that would have added up to quite a lot over a semester. Rachel also braved the bitter, stinging cold of Beijing winters to ride her trusty e-bike all the way to work. When we went on day trips in and around the city, we always used the subway or the bus. Doing so allowed us to pad the travel account by not wasting money on cabs.
7. Weekday Warriors
This may hurt to hear, but it must be said – you’re going to have to sacrifice some weekends. I know, I know. That one place is always so rowdy on Friday nights, and so-and-so usually has a sick band on Saturdays. There’s also probably a cover charge, a line, and a terrible drink special ($8 well drinks and $5 PBRs! Oh boy!). Hit the bar on a Wednesday, and you’ll get whatever table you want plus awesome deals. Remember our free beer and 1/2 price steaks? Yeah, that happened on Tuesday nights, not Saturday. Go ahead and rage your weekends, just pick them wisely. Instead of hitting it hard every weekend, take a few off and do something else that will cost less and thus allow your travel fund to grow. Why burn all your hard-earned cash on a weekend in the same bar you’ve been to a thousand times when you know it can go towards something way more fun, like a Full Moon Party in Thailand.
8. Free Stuff Rules
Who says you have to spend money to have fun? No matter where you live, there’s something entertaining that will cost you very little or even nothing. Take a walk in the park, do some yoga, go toss a frisbee, or read travel blogs. You’ve already got an awesome one right here!
Rather than drop $300 on a festival that’s going to be way too crowded and unpleasant, catch the free tunes at your local joint. Check listings for local events, and you’ll probably find street festivals, farmer’s markets, and all sorts of interesting things you can do without emptying your wallet.
When we were saving for our trip, we spent a lot of days walking around Beijing’s many parks. Most of them are free or only cost a dollar or so, and they’re a great place to really experience the local culture – tai chi, kite flying, water calligraphy, and of course, the age-old Chinese pastime of smoking and spitting. We also skipped out on a lot of shows and parties that came with a hefty cover charge, opting instead for a chill bar or street beers with friends. A good time was still had by all, only with a much smaller price tag.
Take a look around you at all of your crap. Now go open your closet and look at even more of your crap. If you dare, venture into your mom’s attic to discover your ancient crap. Do you really need it all? Or could you sell some of it and put that towards your travel fund? Better yet – get rid of it all and leave on a one-way ticket with a backpack. OK, we realize most people aren’t quite ready for that. Baby steps. Let’s start by simply downsizing.
Chances are you have too many clothes. You also probably have a ton of memberships – gyms, magazine subscriptions, Netflix, a phone plan with unlimited data. Think about how much these things mean to you, and then think about what they could buy you in a developing country. Sell some furniture on Craigslist and all of a sudden you’ve got enough to rent a villa in Ubud for a month – one that’s completely furnished!
When we were in a mad dash to save big bucks for travel, we were using super cheap pay as you go phones. We didn’t have Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, or any of these things so many are convinced they can’t live without. When it was getting closer to our departure date, we sold some furniture, our scooters, and a few other random things. Every little bit counts – that money probably covered our entrance to Angkor Wat in Cambodia plus the awesome week we had in Siem Reap while we visited the temples. To be honest, though, the one thing that really helped us the most is the one that’s the hardest to do.
10. Change Your Address
The developed world is great. We’ve got strip malls, on-demand television with 1,000 channels, Spin classes, and gluten-free everything. We’ve also got an incredibly high cost of living. If you’re living in a place like Los Angeles, Sydney, or London, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that you’re having a hard time saving money for a long-term trip. Maybe, just maybe, would it be possible for you to relocate to somewhere much cheaper for a year or two? Move from New York to Des Moines and work there for a year, and your trip just might be covered. Want to save even more money? The developing world is calling.
Even as mere part-time English teachers, we were able to live a super comfortable life in the Chinese capital and save enough money in less than a year to travel for more than one. Think we would have been able to do that in Chicago? Even if we were working full-time, renting a room, and only using public transportation, I seriously doubt it. Maybe teaching English in China isn’t your thing, but there’s something out there for you in a place that costs a lot less than the one where you currently are. By living in Beijing and taking advantage of the insanely high demand for English teachers, we were able to make good money, live a great life, and still save more than enough money for our 14-month adventure. As we got ready to hit the road, we were amazed to find that we had saved over $25,000. Thanks to my side gig, we also had a check coming in every month we were on the road. With a good budget in place, we were able to pull off the trip without cutting much. If we can do it, so can you.
A Final Word
That trip took us to nine countries and more unforgettable adventures than we can count. It also left us with enough money to pay six months’ rent in Kunming, where we hunkered down for the next year in order to save enough money for our wedding and subsequent 9-month honeymoon in Bali. We spent last summer visiting family and following our favorite bands around. I’m writing this from our $200 a month, 2-bedroom, furnished apartment… in Puerto Vallarta. And it has Netflix! There are so many options out there to help you travel more or even live abroad.
Before you write-off your travel dreams as unattainable, step back and reassess the situation. Can you take on some extra work? Could that extra room full of junk maybe be cleaned out and rented? Do you really need to go to that club this Friday night? How many of those old dresses are you actually going to wear again? Could you handle a year of living in a developing country? Life is all about choices. If you truly dream of a life full of travel and adventure, make the right ones.