February 19, 2013

How to Earn like a Beggar and Live like a Baller

My husband and I didn't have to file income tax this year because we didn't make enough money. In fact, we haven't made enough money to file taxes in a few years. And still we manage to travel. A lot. In the past six years, we've been to the Philippines, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Mexico, Palau, and Thailand. People often ask how we're able to travel so much, so we put our heads together and came up with some things that make our gypsy lifestyle possible—a few tips for anyone who is looking to do a little vagabonding. Jason wrote some of these and I wrote others, in case the narration gets confusing. Most of these tips have to do with either saving up for a trip in advance or staying thrifty while you're on the road. Not all of these tips will be practical for everyone, but they work for us and a lot of people we know.

1. Just do it. There's a whole wide world out there, why not go and see it? The number one way to make travel possible is to develop a burning desire to travel. If you want it bad enough, you'll find a way to make it happen. Many people have the desire already, others get it after their first great experience traveling. Reading travel essays or blogs is another great way to pique your interest. If you're hesitant, just give it a go at least one time. Once you get bit by the travel bug, the desire comes easily and before you know it, your passport is full of stamps from around the world. We started a few years back and can't seem to stop. We think the travel bug in our case might be a terminal illness.

2. Get your priorities straight. When talking to new acquaintances in the U.S. about the traveling I've done, I'm almost guaranteed to hear this: “I wish I could do that.” Of course, anyone can do it. Most people choose not to, for a variety of very good reasons. The want to stay close to family, or they want to maintain a certain lifestyle, or they have long-term career goals that might be jeopardized by extended sabbaticals. But you're kidding yourself if you sincerely want to see the world and think that you can't. Most people who tell me that earn more in one month than I did in all of last year. Travel does cost money (though a lot less than people think), and if your money is spent on other things, it won't be spent on travel. The rest of this list includes things that we do to help us keep our priorities straight.

South Korea
3. Track your spending. When we were teaching in Korea, we kept a notebook where we wrote down any time we spent money, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Coffee on the way home from work, dinner and drinks with friends on the weekends, fresh fruit and veg at the open air market. Anytime you spend, write it down. Do this for at least a month. At the end of that month, you'll have a very good picture of where your money goes. You might see that you spend, say $200 a month on eating out. If you decided to eat out half as often, in 4 or 5 months you would have enough for a round-trip flight to Central America. The most important part of budgeting is being conscious of your spending habits, so that you can improve them. Don't use your debit or credit card. Spending cash makes you feel like you're losing money (which you are), and discourages needless spending. Writing down what you've spent does this too.

4. Cut your spending. The best way is to stop buying things. Many people, especially young people, spend a considerable amount of their money on things. Many of these purchases only give temporary satisfaction. A new $120 watch may look nice, but really-- who cares? Sure, those $70 heels make you look sexy, but what is it really worth? If you stop and think about all the little things you've purchased, it adds up. All that money spent on meaningless things can get you a trip to somewhere amazing, which is worth so much more than all your material possessions. If I have to pay $10 for a shirt, I cringe. BUT if there's an awesome deal on a flight to Argentina for $500, I have no problem. For me, the experiences and memories I'll get from the trip are worth more than having more shirts in my closet, or boots collecting dust. If travel is your number one priority, you'll spend less on other things, like eating out or shopping.

5. Find another way to get to work. Before I moved to Spain to study abroad, I sold my car. I got a little bit of cash from the sale (not much, it was a piece of crap), which helped me out, but I noticed the real difference when I came back from Spain. I decided not to get a car. Instead, I bought a mountain bike from a thrift store for $40, and when that wasn't sufficient I used public transportation. All the money that I would've been spending on a car (payments, insurance, maintenance, gas, parking, etc.) went into my savings account instead. For most people, that can easily amount to several hundred dollars a month. There are downsides. Riding my bike or taking the bus, it would take me an hour to get somewhere that would only take 30 minutes in a car. But it goes back to priorities. That extra time and effort bought me a degree of economic freedom, and I was happy with the trade-off. In fact, my one-hour bike-ride to work, listening to NPR, was one of my favorite parts of the day. A lot better than inching along in traffic.

Costa Rica
6. Get healthy. When we moved to Ecuador, our bank account was looking incredibly bare (even by our standards), since we'd just spent a lot of money on our Costa Rica wedding. Despite paying less than $200 a month in rent and enjoying an absurdly cheap cost of living, we needed to cut spending. We weren't going out much or spending a lot of money otherwise, so one of the only places we could cut was our grocery bill. By cutting meat out of our diet (mostly) we were able to cut our grocery bill by more than half. As a bonus, we both lost a fair amount of weight. Of course, food prices vary everywhere, and if you live in the U.S., you're at a big disadvantage, since the freshest, healthiest food is usually more expensive (the opposite of most of the rest of the world). But meat is generally one of the priciest items on the shopping list. Drinking less is another great way to save money, especially if you do your drinking in bars.

7. Embrace the unknown. Many people are scared to travel. Understandable. BUT fear holds people back from doing some amazing things. This is very true with traveling. You have to let go of that fear because you could be missing out on so much. Traveling with a friend, boyfriend/girlfriend, cousin, etc., is a good way to get around that fear. Talk to people who have traveled about their experiences. Read what people say on travel forums. Do research about your destination—the more prepared you are, the more comfortable you'll feel. When you get there, be open-minded. You'll be interacting with people who are not from the same place you're from, which means they may do/eat/say things that are different and seem strange to you. Just go with it! See what it's like outside your comfort zone. If you want everything to be just like it is back home, international travel probably isn't for you.

8. Lower your standards. This is a big one. Probably the biggest. You can travel the world for VERY cheap, but to do so, you've got to forgo some of the luxuries of home. The lower your standards are, the cheaper your travel becomes. If you can live without hot showers, air conditioning, cable TV and stuff like that, the range of places you can stay at (that fit your budget) gets a lot bigger. Even as a married couple, we sometimes share a dorm room with others to save money, but when we travel, we almost never pay more than $20 a night for accommodations.

9. Make Google your best friend. When searching for airfare, use meta sites like Fly.com or Kayak, but don't forget that for some airlines, the only way to book or see their fares is directly through their own sites. Find out who the cheapest carriers are for the route you want, and check out their sites. Also, use travel deal monitors like TravelZoo. You'll see some crazy deals (I once flew from Dublin to Los Angeles for $380), and if your schedule is flexible, you can take advantage. You can also use sites like Trip Advisor and Wikitravel to find good, cheap hostels and restaurants wherever you're going.

10. Couch surf. If you don't know what it is, just go to couchsurfing.com and check it out. Basically, it's a network of a bunch of people who want to travel and meet people. You say, 'hey, I'm traveling to Sydney, and looking for a place to crash,' then someone says, 'I live in Sydney, and I've got a couch.' That's it. It's free. No strings attached. It's a great way to meet new people and get local insights into the places you visit. Everyone's worried about creepers, I know. But the couchsurfing site is set up sort of like a social network, where you have people vouch for you, including people you've stayed with, people who have stayed with you, etc. So it's not just a free-for-all for serial killers. I've had incredible experiences with couch surfing with extremely kind and generous hosts. Tons of my friends (guys and girls) have couch surfed and hosted surfers, and I haven't heard a single complaint.

11. Ride share or hitchhike. If you want to travel within the U.S., check out the ride share listings on Craigslist. Pitching in for gas with a stranger is usually a lot cheaper than any other option. Outside of the U.S., you can often hitchhike, but do your research to get an idea if it's safe or not.

12. Make friends. Sharing a room with strangers in a hostel dorm room can save you money, but it also gives you the chance to meet cool people. And traveling with your newly found group can save you money on transportation, get you discounts on tours, excursions, admission, etc. If there are enough of you, you can even drink for free! My first night in Madrid with my study abroad group, we decided to get to know each other by going out. There were maybe 15-20 of us, so we went around from bar to bar, demanding a free shot for everyone in the group, or we wouldn't come in. I don't think there was a single bar that turned us down. Being friendly and making conversation with locals will often lead to helpful advice, offers of food and drinks, and invites to events that can be incredible experiences and give you great insight into the culture of the place you're visiting.

13. Build your network. You probably know someone who knows more about the place you're going than you do. Your Uncle Joe might know someone in Barcelona that can put you up for free. Your friend Paco might know of some good places to eat in Tokyo. While traveling, you will meet people from around the world. Many of them will be good people that you really like and that really like you. Keep in touch with them. Many of the people we've met traveling have become good friends. People will tell you “Hey, if you're ever in Australia, come visit me—I'll show you around.” You've got a free place to stay and a free tour guide. Score.

14. Stay awhile. The faster you travel, the more expensive it is. Flying for a weekend to Cancun is going to cost a lot more per day than staying for a couple weeks or months. Even staying at hostels in developing countries, you're likely to pay $10 or more/night for your bed. If you stayed for a month, you could probably rent an apartment for half the price. Plus, longer stays allow you to take in the culture and people more, and get more out of travel than the typical tourist experience.

15. Market yourself. If you have skills, see if anyone needs your services. If you can do some simple graphic design, stay at a small hostel or hotel and offer to build them a website or blog. In exchange, they might give you a discount on your stay, or even let you stay for free. There's a whole network of organic farms that you can stay at and eat at for free in exchange for a few hours of work a day. Most places you travel you can earn a little extra cash by giving English lessons. In fact, we've made a career of it. In Ecuador, we each taught about 15 hours a week, which was enough to cover rent. In Korea, we worked our butts off and made a ton of money. But even if you think you're the least qualified person to teach English, there's someone who's willing to pay you for your time just to get a little practice speaking English. If you're good at making something, like jewelry for instance, sell your stuff to other tourists. If you travel on typical backpack circuits, you'll see tons of people doing this. You might not make a killing, but you'll probably have enough money for a meal.

 We hope these tips might help someone interested in making the big, scary leap to another country. Vagabonding isn't for everybody. Many people are perfectly happy staying in one place. They see their friends and family often, have jobs they like and life is good. But for us, it's the only way to go. We've gotten so much out of our travels and experiences, met so many amazing people, made lasting friendships, eaten so much amazing food and seen so many beautiful places. Living simply has afforded us the freedom to travel extensively, and travel has been very, very good to us.


  1. I think these are great tips. I can't believe the places you and your husband have been able to travel. I'm definitely not as good of a taveler as you two are, but I agree with so many things you said on here. We knew how to live and travel cheap while living in Cambodia and it led us to have fabulous and cheap vacations in China and Vietnam. I need to figure out a way to do that while my husband is so tied down to school here. I am excited to read more about your travels. If you do go to Cambodia, a. let me know your cheap flight info because I want to go too. and b. let me know and I'll give you some great tips, like how to hitchhike easily.

    1. Awesome! Will do!! -- p.s.- my husband was in the Peace Corps, too. He was in Palau in Micronesia. We're talking about maybe doing Peace Corps together in the future. & sidenote- I'm a BYU grad, too. =)

  2. Some great tips, Leia! I want to start doing rideshares back in the states and definitely a good idea to write down spendings...thanks, I´ll be sharing this with friends! Happy travels :)

    1. Gracias, Lisita! & thanks for sharing!!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...