In the LearnVest Personal Stories series, everyday people share the details of their money lives, discussing the individual choices they’ve made and how it’s impacted their financial journey.
Today, one woman explains how planning a European adventure taught her how to save, and how those habits have benefited her even after vacation.
In my house, family vacations were a big deal.
Growing up, we took two big trips each year, one in the summer and one during winter break. If the trip was on this continent, we’d head in the family van and drive across the country. My dad theorized that we’d save money and see more along the way. Occasionally, we’d splurge to visit Pakistan or Sweden, where some of my family lives.
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These trips, though sometimes exhausting, made a huge impression on me and cemented an early love of travel.
Last fall, I decided I wanted to go to Paris. One of my good friends from college was in her final year of graduate studies in Bordeaux and knew fluent French, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
I just needed the money to get there.
My Family Didn’t Instill a Love of Budgeting …
My parents were responsible with their retirement funds and life insurance but would overspend with plastic when they really wanted something. I was acutely aware of some of my parents’ habits, and was determined to do better when I grew up.
On the whole, I’d categorize my financial status as “ignorant.”
Three years out of college, I was slowly paying off a five-figure student loan but at least I didn’t have credit card debt. (My parents helped pay tuition and credit cards until I graduated, so that helped.)
Then I graduated, and started work. Even though I had a good job at an advertising agency in New York, I had residual emotional baggage from my previous stint as a low-paid regional reporter in North Carolina, making $35,000. When I switched to advertising, my salary bumped up by more than half.
I thought I’d be comfortable, but New York expenses made it difficult to feel like I ever had enough.
I also never really knew where my money went. I had signed up for a 401(k) through my job but couldn’t tell you how it worked. My budgeting consisted of depriving myself of things I wanted for as long as possible before indulging in a few major splurges every month, mostly because I never knew exactly how much money I had. I rarely went clothes shopping, but when I did, I would spend hundreds of dollars. Now I'm 24 (I'll be 25 in August) and I'm starting to change the way I'm thinking about my money.
And all that started with this vacation.
My Paris Dream Would Require Real Planning
Between flights, hotel rooms and spending money, I wanted to save $2,000 to travel comfortably in France for eight days. I assumed around $800 for roundtrip airfare and around $100 a day for food (converting from euros). I was staying with my friend in Bordeaux for three days, so that would be free.
Instead of either a crowded hostel bunk bed or a luxury suite, I compromised for the remaining days I'd be there. I booked a small, lovely apartment in central Paris through Airbnb.com for me and my friend, and it cost $88 a night for four nights—divided by two. The rest of the money would be for things like museum admissions, metro tickets and shopping. I could’ve done the trip on much less but I wanted to be able to try nice bars and restaurants; I didn’t want to travel halfway around the world to deprive myself.
In researching budgeting tools online, I came across LearnVest and immediately enrolled in the Take Control Bootcamp. The bootcamp encouraged me to set long- and short-term goals for my income and savings, which got me thinking about the things that matter most to me: my values, my ideal future. It also made me think about what I’d regret not doing—like visiting the City of Light.
How I Got Myself to Paris
First, I created automated savings accounts for every goal I have (travel, education, emergencies, health expenses and eventually buying a home). Since the money is automatically deducted from my paycheck, I can’t miss what I’ve never seen.
I started by cutting back on unnecessary expenses. For example, I stopped getting manicures and pedicures in the winter, and I postponed getting a new phone until Black Friday.
But in order to make my travel dreams a reality, I really needed to earn more money.
At my annual review last November, I came with salary research and a list of my accomplishments on the job. I felt prepared and left satisfied. After a surprise promotion (and subsequent raise), I went back into my checking account and adjusted my budget and savings transfers accordingly.
I also started looking for side income. I began doing more freelance writing, editing and even started mystery shopping at restaurants (basically, dining out anonymously so I could report back and owners can learn more about customers' experiences at their restaurants). Mystery shopping doesn’t really buoy my income much, but it’s a nice way to subsidize my monthly dining. I got into it by visiting the Mystery Shopping Providers Association website to search for opportunities in my area.
Between the raise and the side income, I ended up putting away $300 to $400 a month for Paris.
And, Finally …
All in all, it took me about six months to save for the trip—which I finally went on this April!
To avoid spending money I didn’t have, I didn’t book my flights or hotel rooms until there was enough money in my special travel account. I ended up exceeding my savings goal a bit and kept the rest in the account for travel later in the year.
(For 27 more ways to save on travel, read this.)
My 10 days in Paris and Bordeaux made all the hard work and budgeting sacrifices worth it.
Even though it rained the entire trip, the experience was incredible. I’m so glad to have stayed in an apartment right across from Notre Dame, instead of a cheap, rowdy hostel farther away. I climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower, gawked at the Mona Lisa and walked across the Seine while French men shamelessly flirted with me. I spent hours upon hours giggling with one of my best friends and ate a ton of cheese.
And the best part? I didn’t have to worry about money a single time while I was there.
How My Vacation Changed Me for Good
And the added benefit was ... saving up for this trip helped put all of my goals into focus. Throughout my life, there have been so many things I wanted to pursue but didn’t, either because I was afraid or because I thought they were silly or impossible.
When I was a kid I really wanted to learn an instrument. I also wanted to learn how to swim (yes, I don’t know how to swim). When I got older, I thought it would be really cool, and potentially useful for my career, to learn Arabic.
I made plenty of excuses: I was too busy with school or I didn’t have enough money. Arabic classes and music lessons would be time-consuming and expensive. I told myself that needed to save my money for more long-term, “serious” goals, like buying a home or saving for retirement.
That started to change when I began to picture the life I want and the person I want to become. I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing in five years, but I do know I want to speak Arabic, and play the guitar, and I want to travel. While that sounds simple, it’s not exactly cheap.
I’ve resolved not to scrimp on little things (like depriving myself of everything I could for most of the month) or to spend on meaningless things (like my subsequent crash splurges when I can't take the deprivation anymore). It means I’ve got to be a hustler, continually finding new ways to earn and save more. I’m resolved to earn more side income and continue to adjust my savings targets to match my ever-evolving priorities.
On to My Next Goals!
I’m currently signed up for an online Arabic course but won’t let myself sign up for guitar lessons until later in the year, when my education account replenishes itself. I want to do a lot of things, but I’ve resigned myself to not doing them all at once.
I haven’t started automatically deducting for health expenses since it’s not a pressing issue, thankfully, but I think I might want Lasik eventually, so I’m planning to start soon. Just the idea that I’ll be saving for a procedure like that makes me feel like I am finally taking care of myself.
Since I know I’ve got enough money going into savings because I’ve automated it, I also don’t feel as guilty spending what I do have in my checking account on a latte run or an occasional meal out.
I’ve also now paid off one of my three student loans. And, at 24, I’ve got five figures saved up in the bank for things that are important to me, like taking classes and owning a home someday.
Who knew saving for a dream vacation would lead to a whole new philosophy on budgeting for my dream life?