How I pay for longterm travel

The things I do for money… 🙂 Biking Billboards, at the Seattle Wedding Expo.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Tat.

Breaking away for longterm travel is more financially accessible than many people think. But people ask me “you traveled for so long, how do you pay for it?”. If it’s a priority, you can make it happen. There are lots of ways people do it, but here are a few of my tricks.

Save.
This is the obvious one: when I was working a steady job, I saved. Over three years, I lived below my means and put away over $20,000 with the intention of spending it on something big, either a trip or an apartment downpayment or a wedding (trip always being the heavy favorite! :-P). Since returning to my home town of Seattle in October 2013, I picked up some work and replenished my savings so now have the resources head off to somewhere new (Australia? Indonesia? Mexico?). I am conservative with my money (all credit cards paid off each month, no true debt), with a goal of leaving again to travel in mind.

Travel in cheap countries.
When I went abroad in February 2013, for six months I traveled in cheap countries (Central America) and kept my travel costs fairly low (I spent roughly $1,500 per month all-inclusive). I lived it up for a backpacker; I know I could bring those costs down if I tried harder.

Live cheaply when you aren’t traveling.
In America, we live in a strongly consumer culture where it is normal to buy far more than you need or use. It feels natural, but is far from necessary. It’s actually amazing how easy it is to not spend money! I used to save a decent amount (see point #1), but after returning to the US from Central America and realizing I wanted to devote more resources to travel I cut my monthly expenses by more than half. It took adjusting (I used to have Amazon packages delivered more days than not), but I rarely buy things anymore. For the most part, I live off what I already own.

The majority of my current costs are rent, food, alcohol, phone, and gasoline. For clothing, I thrift. For health care, I go to a free clinic. I go out, but usually at happy hour. For entertainment, I buy tickets sparingly, volunteer in exchange for tickets, or go to free events. I tend to spend time with people who act frugally too. I drink a lot more beer now, whereas two years ago my typical order was a $10+ cocktail or glass of wine. I eat eggs instead of meat. Not to say I don’t splurge sometimes! 😉

It won’t substantially change your life to go without a few luxuries. The experience of travel will. So save your money, clip coupons, and be happy with what you have. Recognize what things you buy are unnecessary and quit buying them!

Be thankful for the generous support of others, and look forward to treating them back.
I am blessed with kind and generous family and friends. Since being back in the US, dear ones who know I’m on a shoe-string have fed and housed me for short and long periods of time for little or no rent. It’s an incredible gift. I couldn’t be more grateful, try to repay their kindness as best I can, and look forward to gifting I can do in the future.

Think broadly about potential work. Be flexible about your timeline. 
Friends and family are a great resource in job hunting. Let people know you’re looking for work, attend events where you might make connections, and follow up on potential opportunities.

In December, I turned down two opportunities for three-month projects that paid around $10,000. I stupidly passed on both because I didn’t think I’d be in Seattle that long (she says, eight months later), didn’t want to do grunt work, and didn’t realize how tricky it would be to make meaningful money without getting locked into a multi-year job. Now I regret it. If an opportunity for decent money comes your way, be willing to change your plans. That leads me to my next point…

When you can, make some money!
Picking up extra cash is tough when you’re transient. Short-term work that pays well is scarce, yet committing to a long-term job is generally anti-travel (at least, the fun kind, typically). It’s a dilemma. In my eight months in Seattle, I picked up a number of jobs to cobble together an income. I managed to not only live net-neutral but rebuild my savings. Here are my income streams, big and small, in order of earning potential:

Contract/seasonal work in your field of expertise:
From March to June 2014, I was fortunate to work as a contract fundraiser for a music festival, which is my professional background. The job was a set, seasonal time period and paid a reasonable wage full-time. This was by far the overall most lucrative and reliable income I received in the past year. Travelers afraid of commitment, short-term (3-12 months) or project-based work in your field is where it the best buck for your time is.

What are your unique marketable skills that have the highest income potential? What industries/companies/organization might pay for you to work remotely or short-term? What will help bolster your resume for when you decide to truly return to the workforce?

Festivals, while stressful, provide seasonal employment for the wanderers.
We’re pretty much modern-day carnies.

A side note to wanderers out there: Many people on staff at the festival where I worked have regular 3ish-month gigs with festivals around the country and move along the circuit. It’s hard work, but you can too! It’s a small festival world, so once you get hooked in you can network for other festival gigs.

Part-time jobs:
Part-time or casual jobs tend to have lower hourly pay but are easier to get and leave. Good for those who are wary of committing to a job, but in my experience only pay enough cover cost of living, not generate savings. Get more than one; a few flexible part-time jobs put together like puzzle pieces make a more comprehensive schedule.

Job #1: I arrived in Seattle in late October so looked for work at local tourist attractions who might need extra help over the holidays. I got quickly hired by the Space Needle as an elevator operator team as part of their holiday relief staff. The the job was easy to secure, had no take-home stress, and I enjoyed being on-site at a landmark and sharing my Seattle joy with visitors. The downsides were low hourly pay and little control over my schedule.

Taking a break from operating the Space Needle elevators to get attacked by a giant salmon.
It doesn’t get more Seattle-y than this…

Job #2: My sister works at Biking Billboards and hooked me in with a very flexible part-time gig, doing exactly what it sounds like: biking with a billboard and doing on-the-street marketing. I enjoy it, the pay is great for casual work, have complete control over your schedule, and it is a family company that treats its employees well. As you might imagine, there are more shifts available in the good-weather months as companies market outdoors at summer concerts, fairs, and other events. In the winter, I did 1-2 rides every 1-2 weeks. In the summer, I am doing 3-4 rides each week. Each ride takes about 4 hours so it’s very part-time.

You meet the most interesting “people” handing out flyers on a street corner. Photo courtesy of @homerbassett.


Research studies:
This is one of my favorite ways of getting a little extra cash. Selling your body to science is the best! This is not a primary money-maker, but a great way to make pocket-money. Studies are random, somewhat entertaining, and pay well per hour. My primary source for local, legit studies is Craig’s List etc jobs page, which I check daily as new studies pop up all the time. You quickly get a sense of which studies are most likely to call you back. Ignore big online survey companies like Murfite that promise small amounts of money or points; they aren’t worth your time.

Studies generally come in two flavors:

  • User testing: Companies want feedback from normal people about their products. Apply for local in-person focus groups that pay cash or Amazon/Visa gift cards. Studies last 30 minutes to two hours, scheduled about a week in advance, and pay anywhere from $30-$120/hour. They’re also usually interesting! I have play-tested a MMORPG video game, made left turns in a driving simulator, given my opinion on blogging and texting applications, and had my brain activity monitored as I watched videos.
  • Medical/Psychological: In Seattle, there are legit medical studies through the University of Washington, and sometimes Fred Hutch needs healthy subjects for cancer and HIV research. I like supporting medical research, as long as my health is NEVER impacted. I have done nothing I considered too invasive nor taken any medication. I have shared my drinking and dating habits (single ladies, check out Project FRESH through the UW pays up to $320), gotten medical exams I needed anyway (ladies again, check out the HOPE study through UW pays $200 for routine female exams), and given small tissue or blood samples for drug research ($30-50 each visit). I also learned about additional studies by asking clinicians and front desk staff about other studies I might qualify for. 


Selling possessions:

When living more simply, you discover you already own a lot of crap you don’t need. I sold books and household items with resale value I could do without. My KitchenAid mixer now has a good home with a friend in California, making baked goodies I see pics of on Facebook often :-). This can be turned more into a business; I have friends who flip things they find at thrift stores and estate sales for a profit. If you have knowledge in a particular area, are able to fix things, or have an eye for spotting potential treasure, go for it!

Startups for odd-jobs:
Platforms for contracted labor have popped up everywhere in the past few years: TaskRabbit, Uber, Lyft, Postmates, just to name a few. I haven’t found much success in this area due to basic logistical constraints: my car isn’t new enough to be a chauffeur and my house is too far from population centers to be a bike deliverer. I tried TaskRabbit while visiting in San Francisco in January 2014. I found a quick-assign task at 11pm and made $35 in two hours the next morning making kid lunches. It felt ok, but inefficient and like slave-ish labor.

Writing:
I should probably try to monetize this blog more; it’s an upcoming project for me. I added a PayPal donate button earlier in 2014 (see it up there all shiny and orange at the top right!) and have received a few gifts–thank you!!

Be aware of your money.
Once you have money, what can you use to spend and watch it responsibly? I’ve always had fun managing my money. International travel makes it a little more complex. I don’t create hard budgets, but am aware of what I have and where I want to be. I use a few financial tools to help.

  • CREDIT CARDS: I use two no-annual fee credit cards with cash back.
    • Chase Freedom for 1% or 5% cash back.
    • Capital One for 1.5% cash back, no international fees, and lets you monitor your credit score–neat! 
    • I am conscious of which card is best for what circumstances and use them accordingly. In the US, I use Capital One for all purchases since it has a slightly higher cash back rate, unless my Chase card is running a special cash back deal (in April-June this year, they had 5% cash back for restaurants so I always used that card when I ate out). When traveling outside the US, I always use my Capital One card because it has zero foreign transaction fees.
  • BANK ACCOUNTS: I have two bank accounts, each serving different purposes. 
    • I have the bulk of my money in a Wells Fargo checking account, which serves as my primary domestic bank for deposits and paying bills. This account works well in the US, but has high $5 ATM withdrawal fees abroad. 
    • As an auxiliary online bank account primarily for travel, I have a Charles Schwab Investor High Yield Checking Account, linked to my Wells Fargo account so I can easily move money between the two. This account is blissfully simple: managed online, no annual fee, no account minimums, and is special because you can withdraw money from any ATM in the world for free. (Can you imagine? Not having to pay money to access your own money anywhere? A dream!) 
  • RETIREMENT: I have retirement accounts (a 503(b) with TIAA-CREF and Roth IRA with Vanguard) that I review often and rebalance a few times a year. This is where the bulk of my net worth is, so I don’t neglect it. Also, it’s good to note that a Roth IRA (though I don’t intend to use it this way) can serve as an emergency fund; principle contributions can be withdrawn any time tax and penalty free. Set up a Roth IRA in addition to your 401(k), people!
  • KNOWLEDGE: I closely watch all of my accounts together using Mint.


In conclusion…
Live cheaply, make money when you can, be aware of your money, and save save save! Then enjoy the trip of a lifetime, over and over again. Best wishes to all your bank accounts and happy traveling.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “How I pay for longterm travel

  1. Erin: There are so many ways to vacation for very little cost right here in the US, without receiving money from friends or family, without working, and without having to worry ahead of time about the cost. The easy way is called “Farmstays.” check out the one that I own: http://www.ncfarmstay.com. I do think that there is an expectation and attitude adjustment for farmstays to work.

    Like

  2. Enjoyed your blog!! But “Roth IRA …can serve as an emergency fund; principle contributions can be withdrawn any time tax and penalty free.” Really?? I was under the impression that it was for retirement, hence incurs a penalty for pre-retirement withdrawals (though tax-free for principle contributions).

    Like

  3. I really enjoyed reading this comprehensive list of ideas to live below your means and save money for travel. Since I have started embracing minimalism and living a simpler lifestyle at home, I have been able to save a lot of money from my full-time job, which allows me to travel. Now, if only I had more time off work to do so! That’s the next challenge. Keep up the great work on your blog!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s