How I afford to travel the world (and how you can too)

by Kim on August 22, 2013 · 149 comments

A few years back when my husband and I were saving money to travel the world, I wrote about the topic of money all of the time.

I stopped writing about money because I found that people assumed we were rich (we are not) which undermined how hard we had worked at our dream and the sacrifices we made along the way. Or, people assumed we somehow had a leg up and left comments saying as much. All of those complaints and excuses just annoyed me, so I stopped writing about money.

Anyway, I’ve received a few emails lately asking how we afford to travel the world and I’m sure many of you out there are wondering the same thing. So here’s the answer.

Before my husband and I left to travel we had 9-5 jobs working for the local government. Yes, we both had stable jobs that provided a fine income. We weren’t bagging groceries at Wal-Mart but we also weren’t earning six figures working for private corporations. I’m not going to tell you how much money we made because who does that? But we both made in the mid five-figures, probably like a lot of you.

We initially funded our travels by saving up a chunk of money to travel on. We did this by not buying the crap that other people were buying and saving every leftover penny. We got ourselves out of credit card debt and then stopped using credit cards completely. We lived below our means.

Kim with change jar

Me in 2009 with our change jar. We no longer own a single thing in this photo.

So here’s the bottom line. We left the country in August 2012 with $55,000 in travel money and 12-months later we still have $35,000. We spent almost all of that 20K at the beginning of our trip in South America (we went to the Galapagos Islands which ate up 1/4 of that 20K in one week. It was worth it.).

By the time we got to Asia I was making enough money with my writing to live off of (Asia is quite inexpensive, so that helps). When we left to travel I wasn’t making much money at all on my writing. Earning an income through writing is just something that happened along the way. I wanted it to happen, I worked for it to happen, but there was no guarantee that it would happen. More on that in a minute.

I once got an email from someone who wrote, “I want to do what you are doing. I make $200 a week.” I couldn’t tell if the person who sent the email was just setting me up or if he was genuinely seeking help. Either way, my response is the same: Get another job. (I told him this and, consequently, he did not write me back).

I mean, he knew that, right? Because unless you’re in high school and living with your parents you probably won’t be able to pay your rent and feed yourself and save to travel the world making $800 a month. So get another job by which I mean an additional job. You can also get a better job but we all know that’s easier said than done.

My point is, there’s no magic bullet. If you want to save money to travel the world you need to bring in enough money to support your basic needs and save the leftovers. For a lot of people that means picking up another job. And after traveling through a lot of third-world countries and seeing a whole bunch of poverty I have to say that if you live in the U.S. you are in the very blessed minority of people that have the ability to make this happen. Sure, you might have to work really hard and do a whole bunch of stuff you’d rather not do and go a few years on a little bit of sleep, but if  you really want to save money to travel you can make it happen.

I want to point out something that so many other travelers before me have also pointed out: Traveling isn’t as expensive as you think it is. Sure, plane tickets can be pricey. And if you’re taking a two week vacation and staying in fancy hotels and pretty much just zipping through a place then you’re going to rack up quite a bill. But if you are moving slowly and taking local buses and eating at street stalls and sometimes sleeping on people’s dirt floors you’re going to be able to do a lot on a little bit of money. And if you just want a high-end tour of your favorite cities in Europe you probably just need a long vacation and should not give up your life to travel full-time like Brian and I did. It isn’t for everyone.

If you want to know how much it might cost to travel in the countries that you are interested in visiting, I recommend checking out the destination-specific budget breakdowns over on Jodi Ettenburg’s website.

What I’ve found while traveling is that once you get out on the road there are plenty of ways to make money. If you are a pilates or yoga instructor or a massage therapist or a hairstylist you can make money by selling to your fellow travelers. Find some hippy beach town in India and set up your yoga mat on the sand each morning at 6 a.m. and teach the people that wander by.

If you are a graphic designer or a writer or a photographer you can make money by designing or writing or selling your photos online. If you are a waitress or a cook you can make money. I met a rock-climbing waitress from Colorado in Argentina, she served me wine at my favorite restaurant in El Chalten. I can’t list every exotic location job here on this blog. It’s the sort of thing that you stumble upon while you are out there exploring the world. So save money, take a leap of faith, and know that when you really need some cash the universe will nudge you towards that tapas restaurant in that tiny village in Spain that really needs a lunchtime waitress.

Now back to how I fund my travels these days.

I mentioned in this post that my writing is supporting our travels and I probably got 50 emails from people asking how. Mostly, Brian and I live off of the income that I earn from this blog (via advertising) and whatever freelance gigs I pick up (which are few and far between). Sometimes, like when we are in an expensive country like the U.S., we dip into our savings to make ends meet. I do not make enough money to afford to live in the U.S. (yet!). Also, keep in mind that Brian and I have no expenses, so we can live on very little. We have no utility bills, no rent, no car payment. We do have student loans that we pay every month (Yes, we have student loans. This was another excuse I used to hear, “Oh, you must not have any student loans to pay like I do.” Yes we do!).

kim with rupees in India

2013 in India. I only feel rich.

I am not getting rich. I’m just getting by. And that’s okay for me right now because I’m doing what I love and not yet freaking out about the future. My income isn’t stable. Sometimes I have great earning months and sometimes I have terrible months. Brian and I just try to live on as small amount of money as possible no matter what. We try to make our money stretch. We don’t throw big parties during the good months and buy everybody a shot at the bar. We’re frugal, always. And plus, the good months aren’t great, they’re just good enough to keep us going.

I suppose what I want to say more than anything is this: If you wait for all of the stars to align and that six-figure location independent job offer to come to you, you will be waiting forever. Plan, save, and then take the damn leap. You won’t know what other opportunities are out there until you get out there. You have no idea who you’ll meet or what you’ll learn. As for me, I’m glad I did it the way I did. Even if my writing had never gained steam and I’d blown through my savings and then gone home, I still wouldn’t have regretted a second of it. The fact that the universe keeps lobbing opportunities at me that keep us traveling is just sweet icing on the cake.

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