We are always inspired by our own readers who have accomplished amazing financial goals on much tighter budgets, like Dana, who paid off $25,000 of credit card debt in only two years.
So, when Betsy Talbot of blog Married With Luggage offered to share the story of how she and her husband Warren saved enough for a five-year trip around the world in only two years, we jumped at the chance.
Have you ever thought about chucking it all and going to live on a deserted beach somewhere?
Of course you have; we all do. But then we turn off the alarm clock, drag ourselves out of bed, and head to the job that funds our everyday life.
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But what would happen if you gave the idea some serious thought?
In 2008, my husband Warren and I decided to do just that: quit our jobs to travel around the world for one year. We both worked for almost 20 years in successful careers and accumulated all the things people usually do in that time: a home, car, furniture, a busy social life with many friends. As a childless-by-choice couple, we thought we had freedom, but were just as chained to our jobs and the status quo as anyone else.
It took the one-two punch of my 35-year-old brother’s freak heart attack, followed by a good friend’s brain aneurysm, to wake us up to the life we were living (or, more accurately, weren’t living) and prompt the question:
“If we knew we wouldn’t make it to our 40th birthdays, what would we do differently right now?”
That single inquiry highlighted every single thing we were doing that didn’t support our long-term dream of travel.
We had always spent a lot of our disposable income on travel, with local weekend getaways and bigger trips to Hawaii and Europe. We were very curious to see Antarctica, more of Europe, and to venture into Asia, something that just wasn't possible with only a week of vacation at a time. In fact, Warren took his last job just because of the insane frequency of travel and the knowledge we could build up an incredible amount of frequent flier miles for our personal travels.
Warren and I looked into each other’s eyes and knew instantly that we weren’t going to put our dreams off anymore.
Action Is a Girl’s Best Friend
The next day, we brewed a strong pot of coffee and got to work planning. This is where it gets sticky for most people: learning to put a price tag on a dream. We decided our travel style fell somewhere above sleeping in hammocks and below a Hyatt, averaging $100 per day. Multiply that by 365 days, and that’s how we came up with our initial budget number (and the one we still use after 16 months): $36,500.
We worked out how much we thought it would cost, divided that into a monthly savings number we could achieve, and then multiplied out how many months it would take to amass our getting-out-of-the-nest egg. The answer was 24 months. We added an extra month at the end to take advantage of a scheduled work bonus we hoped to get, and set the date for two years down the road. (In our former life, Warren worked in the business side at Microsoft and I worked as a consultant for women-owned businesses.)
Following Through on the Plan
Excitement makes the first days of saving easy. I mean, we were going to travel the world! But two years is still a long time to be on a savings plan, and if we hadn't put the following strategies into practice, I’m not sure we would have been successful.
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We relied on the automation of direct deposit because sometimes the will is weak. Two years to the day from when we would board our first flight (to Ecuador), Warren and I agreed to deduct $ 1,000 from our bank account each pay period to go into our savings account entitled "The Vault."
One Day at a Time
Instead of thinking of our overall goal, we broke it down into increments of $100 per day. We developed a “phrase to save” using that number, asking ourselves “Is it worth a day on the road?” every time we wanted to spend on something. (Usually, it wasn't!) I stopped getting my hair colored at the salon, which saved a lot of money. And I realized when we started traveling, I was going to stop altogether and be free of the maintenance at the same time I was freeing myself from everything else. I also stopped buying clothes, realizing I would have completely new wardrobe requirements on the trip. It was much more fun to think of the exotic clothes I would buy in foreign countries than to shop in my local stores. Working day by day, the long-term saving took care of itself.
Early on, we tracked our spending--down to the penny--for one month. We were shocked to find that a lot of the money we needed to save each month was being spent eating out at ethnic restaurants. We decided that saving money for Chinese food in China was more in line with our goal than eating Chinese takeout from down the street.
Soup Kitchen, Reverse Birthday Party and Progress
The thing with big goals and working toward them is that they – gasp! – actually happen. We passed our savings goal of $36,000 in only one year. The more we saw money piling up in the bank and possessions being streamlined (goodbye yard equipment, extra furniture, superfluous electronics, un-read books!) the more we thought about making this trip longer than one year. And if we were going to do this for longer than one year, why keep all of our stuff?
It was really hard for me to let go of some personal items like handbags, scarves and hats. I used hats and scarves a lot in my "look," and it felt like I was losing a bit of myself at first. My red beret! My orange cloche! My knit beanie! It wasn't until I let them go, though, that I was able to transition into a traveler mindset. (I still have three traveling hats, though. Some habits die hard.)
We set an aggressive new trip timeline: five years. We had simply become so good at amassing money, that why not ramp up our savings and extend our trip? We figured we could save like Scrooge, sell junk as well as the Sham-Wow guy on TV and socialize like Paris Hilton on a dime (or is that Perez?).
Take, for example, my Reverse Birthday Party, where friends shopped in my closet "boutique" to the sounds of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” while drinking wine and eating cake, purchasing the things they loved in order to add to our trip fund. It was much easier to let these things go to the people I loved.
By the time we headed to the airport with two backpacks and a dream, we had sold our house, car and all of our possessions.
Why It Was Worth It
We bribed our first government official in Ecuador, stood in the shadow of an erupting volcano (Volcan Tungurahua in Baños), trekked through pre-Incan jungle ruins, and drank gallons of delicious and cheap wine in South America.
We crashed through 30-foot waves in a Force-12 storm in the Drake Passage on our way back from two weeks in Antarctica, then we took that same ship for five weeks all the way up the Atlantic to England. After visiting some fabulous places in Europe for the summer, we headed to Thailand for the winter.
We've seen 14 countries so far, and we have 182 more to go. But that would be every country in the world, so it might take a while!
We will soon be leaving for Finland. We will discover the vastness of China, attend the centuries-old Nadaam games this summer in Mongolia, and take an epic train journey from Mongolia to St. Petersburg on the Trans-Siberian Express.
But our trip wasn't just about seeing sights: We planned to do some volunteering, a lot of hiking and trekking, see a few friends, and learn Spanish. It has worked out that way and more, as we have lent our business skills to charities and travel businesses along the way, picked up Spanish and a bit of Thai, and made friends all over the world.
We also learned the benefits of housesitting, and we have stayed in some of the most beautiful homes in the greatest cities and towns in the world. There is no way we could have predicted or planned half the things that have happened, and that is the best part.
People Often Ask What We Miss From Our Old Lives ...
I have to tell you, there is not one damn object I miss from before. In fact, I can barely recall the things we did own, even the things that practically had to be pried from my hands (like my hats). And we don’t buy anything extra on our travels, either, preferring to spend our money on experiences instead.
We miss our family and friends, and we are grateful for Skype and Facebook, which allow us to stay in such close contact with them. Even the ones who thought we were a bit crazy back in 2008 can no longer deny the positive effect this decision has had on our lives. We haven't been back to the States since October 2010, but we'll be back to visit family and friends later this year.
We are earning money while away by writing books and providing some business consulting and website design work. We make enough to sustain ourselves, and we like that we don't have to dip into our travel fund as much as we thought we would.
I think we are travelers for life. We envision a lifestyle of slow travel for the foreseeable future, stopping when we like a place or need time to work on a project, and traveling when our feet get itchy again. We just spent six months in Thailand finishing our latest book, "Strip Off Your Fear: Slip Into Something More Confident", and now we are rewarding ourselves with a huge overland trip from Thailand to Europe.
For us, the biggest takeaway in this whole adventure was learning that possessions and obligations are the tethers that keep you grounded in place--unable to take that perfect job, great opportunity or grand adventure when it comes your way. Freedom from debt, a bit of money in the bank and a streamlined existence mean that you can bend and sway with changes and opportunities.
True wealth is control over your time and how you spend it.
Find out more about how Betsy and her husband Warren achieved their financial goal to travel around the world in their book "Dream Save Do: A Step-by-Step Guide to Amass the Cash to Live Your Dream." You can read more about their journey to live the good life on their website, Married With Luggage (and get a free guide on how they used Craigslist to make some serious cash).