Money, honey

There are two big hurdles to a trip like this—practical hurdles.


One is your job. Can you take time off for a long stretch? Can you quit? Can you work on-line? Or in my case, can you take a job in the first place that offers a perk like a sabbatical—a paid leave-of-absence for a semester or a year in which I do other tasks than teach.  But we’ve met others who sold their home and all possessions and hit the road in that way.


It’s a big issue, and it’s the easy explanation for why 90% of the travelers we’ve met on the road are either retired or young adults who’ve not yet begun their careers. It’s also why we’ve met so few Americans on the road. Other countries like Germany build into their system the possibility of long travel. So does Australia, which has a law requiring a company to reward its employees who’ve been with them for ten years a long sabbatical—something like 4 or 5 paid months leave. Not America. America has a tight stranglehold on its work force, offering a meager two weeks of vacation per year; plus, the health-care system ties you to your work, rather than to a government.


So that’s a big thing: What are you going to do about your job?


That’s issue #1. Issue #2 is… money.


Do you have enough money to go on an around-the-world trip? How much does it cost? How much do you need to save? How do you get money on the road? How do you protect your money?


Exciting questions, eh? (Uh oh, I’m already sounding Australian and we haven’t even landed in Perth yet.)


An important place to begin are these lessons:


1. Get rid of your obligations at home, one at a time. Get rid of all subscriptions, all phone bills, all Netflix accounts… That sort of thing. You’d be surprised how much it all adds up. By the time we left our only payment was for our mortgage. For everything else it’s liberating to shed those payments, one at a time.


2. Embrace the attitude of RUTS. That’s right: RUTS—or, Resist the Urge To Spend. Out on the road you can spend $28 on a Yankees cap and $274 on a Turkish rug and $12 on a refrigerator magnet of the Taj Mahal—or not. It became a mantra for us—“RUTS”—to remind ourselves that this is not the time to acquire. Take lots of pictures as your souvenirs and RUTS the rest.


3. Travel to those countries where your money goes far. Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Laos, Cambodia—in these countries your dinner will cost a few dollars and your hotel room as little as $10—or since we’re too old to be backpackers, our excellent hotel rooms ran between $25-40 on most nights.


4. Lean on your friends and family. Theresa and David, blessings upon you for our five days in New York City. Lovgrens, we’re kissing your toes for those two weeks in Sweden. Julie and Andy, we can repay you for that free week in your apartment on the Danube with… with a dinner at Diamondback. Thank you to the cousins in Italy, and to our old friends Titi and Fausto for a free week in their apartment in Bologna.


Such gratitude we feel to these sweet, generous people. Do you have people like that in your life? If not, you’ll blow a lot of money, especially in Europe where the dollar is a thin and threadbare compared to the robust euro.


If you haven’t such connections, don’t fret, there’s a solution.


5. And that solution is… CouchSurfing. Now, this works both ways. Right now you can host travelers in your home, people like us who believe in the richness of travel and cultural exchange but who need a free place to rest our heads. Sign up as a host, and soon you’ll make friends with people from Brazil and Belgium and Singapore—friends who’ll host you when it’s your time to hit the road.


CouchSurfing has helped us out twice. In Singapore and Perth, two expensive places with hotel rooms routinely $150/night, we needed help. In Singapore we stayed with Fred and Irene—yes, those are their names—for five lovely, comfortable nights. And in a few nights we’ll be staying with Peter in Perth and his four children.


Depending on your budget and where you’re going, you can use CouchSurfing a lot and really save money. Go check out the site now:


6. We are frugal but not cheap. We met all sorts of people who spent much less than us, people willing to sleep on bunks in dorms and willing to endure 60 hours on a train from one end of India to the other.


7. Take good care of your things and they’ll last the year. Right now I’m wearing the same shorts and shirt I wore when I boarded a plane in Sacramento last July 20th, and they’re going strong.


8. Rent out your house. It may not match your mortgage, but it’ll help. And if you’re ambitious and want to rent it out long term for more money, check out two sites: AirBnB and my favorite,


9. Be willing to ask people for breaks. The apartments we’ve rented in Rome and Sydney are 40% the usual price, all because I told the owners our situation—that we’re a traveling with a certain budget, so could you help us out. Massimo and Sam—thanks!


10. Stay put every so often. We had stays of two weeks in Rome, 9 days in Pushkar, India, 8 days in Luong Prabang, Laos. That saves a lot of money because moving costs money. Stop, settle in, get to know your neighbors—and save money.


And if you stay long term somewhere, consider renting an apartment to save on food. For this I once again recommend


Okay, with all those lessons and attitudes in mind, let’s get to the nitty gritty of how much money we spent.


Our budget for each month was $4500—or about $150/day. Now, this covers the obvious things like hotel and food, but also the travel expenses and visas and the day’s ride on an elephant. Everything. If I broke it down, we probably averaged about $40/night on a hotel, $30/day on food, and the rest on everything from SIM cards, to rides in a camel cart, to shoe repairs, to tickets for the water puppets in Hanoi, and so on, and so on. The big hits on the budget, however, were the longer flights and ferries and overnight bus rides. In most cases I could still stay within that monthly figure of $4500, but over the course of a year, I dipped into a savings account that I created just for this trip.


The amount of that account? Well, my initial goal was $15,000, but it swelled to $25,000 as I taught an extra class and got a tax return and moved some pennies around. $25,000—that’s a lot of money, isn’t it? It’s probably so much that most of you are turning away with a sigh, saying, “Oh well, can’t do that.”


I saved that amount because I didn’t know any better. I figured that I’d need a lot more money for all these flights and all the mysteries out there in the world. I didn’t know about Skyscanner, the website that’s made it possible for me to cobble together one-way flight after one-way flight, hopping across the globe to a grand total of about $9000. (Just to compare, when I first hatched the idea of this trip I thought my only option was to buy an Around-the-World flight package from an alliance of airlines. There are three of these deals out there, and each would cost us about $28,000 for the three of us. A fortune, right? So forget that. Do it all on your own, and all for about $3000 for each of us—not bad to circumnavigate the globe.)


So not knowing what I know now, I worked overtime for a year, continued to drive our dumpy cars with over 300,000 miles on them, and moved money around, and saved, and saved.


Well, it turns out that of that $25,000, I only dipped into it for $2000 for the first nine months. That’s right: $2000—or about $220/month beyond the $4500 monthly budget. That’s changing now as we venture into the expensive lands of Australia and New Zealand, and as I buy the final flights that’ll get us home. But we’re visiting these countries because we have this money still sitting there. If we didn’t, our last month would be in the Philippines or China, maybe South Korea, places closer to San Francisco and therefore cheaper to fly home.


Now that I’ve bought our tickets home, that $25,000 is down to $20,000, and I expect that the expenses of Australia and New Zealand will need further tapping, maybe $3000 or so beyond our monthly budget. That’s okay. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit these countries, and our frugality for the first nine months is now getting rewarded.


Still, not bad, don’t you think? All in all I’ll spend $8000 of savings on top of the $4500/month, for a grand total of… of about $55,000.


How much do you spend in a year, just living at home?


I ask because here’s the dirty secret about traveling the world: It’s cheaper than staying at home.


I repeat: It’s been cheaper for us to live on the road for 300 nights, racking up about 30,000 miles, than making ends meet in Columbia, California.


At home I burn $300 to fix a muffler, and $43 for an ordinary meal with my family at a Mexican restaurant, and $620 for a tank of propane, and $9200 for Liam’s tuition, and… well, you get the picture.



Life’s expensive.


But without a car and its insurance, without ATT to gouge a country every month, without a house to heat, without a tuition to pay, without picking up a $112 tab for dinner out with friends—without any of that, life’s simple and cheap, especially if you’re waking up on a beach in Indonesia, where renting a bicycle for a day is $2, and eating lunch for 3 is $9, and paying for all your internet needs for the month is $24. (Die, ATT. Die!)


We did it. Yes, the good citizens of California have continued to pay my salary, so I have a special circumstance that you likely don’t have.


But it’s not impossible. And you can do it for less that we did—probably as little as $40,000 for the year for a family of three if you go to the cheap countries and live a certain mindful way.


Okay, so that’s the lowdown on money. Now just a few more related points.


1. How do you get money out there in the world?


ATM machines. There were only a few places without ATMs, in the Himalayas and on an Indonesian island, but otherwise I just did what I do at home. It’s a miracle, really—and very easy and reliable way to manage your money.


A side point: Have some backups with your cards. We’ve heard a few cases of machines eating a traveler’s card, and they were now in a panic. In our case, Dolora carried a copy of everything I carried in my wallet—one ATM card, two credit cards that could, in a pinch, get money out of an ATM machine.


2. Did I carry some secret American cash?


Not much, just five 100-dollar bills. And I’m glad that I had that reserve in a few instances when I couldn’t get the local currency right away and needed money to buy an entrance visa.


But you don’t need thousands—not in a world of ATMs. Just a few crisp bills—just in case.


On a related note: We met someone who told us of an overnight bus trip in Thailand, when he heard someone rummaging around in the luggage area underneath. Turns out that it was a thief—and a clever thief—who broke into this guy’s bag and went straight to his shaving kit, the usual place to hide money.


3. Who pays the bills back home?


Yes, you need to find your own personal saint, someone who’ll go through your mail every two weeks in search of essentials. In our case it was our friend Andrea Ferroni, who in exchange for one bottle of balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy, has taken care of this paper business for the year. We left her our checkbook, and she takes care of it all.


Oh, and I’ve set up bill pay on-line through my bank and other automatic payments.


It’s the year 2014, children. It’s all on-line.


4. What about taxes?


If you’re getting a return, then you can delay filing it until you get back.


5. Any advice about a wallet?


Ok, Dolora thinks I’m paranoid about this, but I bought a wallet with a metal chain that hooks onto my belt loop. It looks nerdy, I know, but I’m convinced that the guy who bumped into me in Athens was a pickpocket, and I’m convinced that a few others saw my sneaky ways and backed off. My wallet is a trifold from a company called Pacsafe. Check into them. They make a lot of products for travelers to protect against thieves, like cut-proof straps on computer bags. This wallet is sweet, and it’s served me well for the year.


With all that said, I haven’t found the world to be a terrifying place at all. Sure, you have to use common sense and you have to size up situations, and you can’t just leave your things out in the open. But in my lifetime I’ve had two wallets stolen, both in San Francisco, and one care stolen, right off the street in Sonora, California, at 7pm.


Go figure.


Okay, that’s enough for now. I want to get out of this hotel room to see what Perth has to offer. If I’ve missed anything on the subject of money, ask and I’ll address it.


I leave you with this: You can do it. You’ll spend more money at home than on the road—especially if you shift your habits of buying and embrace a simpler life. You can think long-term, of starting to save a little bit now for a wild trip around-the-world in five years. You can do a shorter version, like three months, in the cheaper countries of southeast asia and India and Nepal and Sri Lanka. Using tools like skyscanner and agoda and couchsurfing, you can cobble together your own trip in an affordable way.


You can do it.


Or at least you can do it, money-wise. The more fundamental question is whether you want to do it, whether you’re curious about the world and its cultures, whether you can overcome your fears and take a leap.


I’ll write more about that on another blog.


But as for money, that’s how I did it.










1 Comment

  1. Brian

    Excellent reminder to subtract what one would’ve spent at home when figuring the true cost of a trip. You always have to eat and if you drive to work the price of gas isn’t exactly negligible, even if it doesn’t fully cancel out the cost of a given plane ticket.

    I’ve found credit card promotions and bonuses can help us afford to travel. You have to be careful, of course, and it’s conceivable that we spend more because we use credit cards a lot, but in the past seven years we’ve used the resulting frequent flyer miles for several international trips as well as Hawaii and other US destinations. So while not for everyone, I think thoughtful credit card use can help make travel feasible.

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