Earlier this spring I went on a pretty perfect vacation: My boyfriend and I took an 800-mile road trip from our home in Austin, Texas, to Big Bend Ranch State Park on the Mexican border.
We spent four days hiking, relaxing and eating delicious home-cooked meals. In the mornings we were soaking up sun in one of the last truly wild places in the U.S., then in the evenings gazing at the Milky Way under clear starry skies. The best part of it all was that it only cost $262 total—or just $131 each.
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To hit that magically low number, we didn’t stay in fancy hotels or dine at trendy restaurants. We bought food at the grocery store and cooked at the campsites where we slept. Gas constituted most of our spending, which is unavoidable on a road trip.
Yet frankly, I enjoyed myself a whole lot more than I would have if we'd booked a luxury cruise.
Spending and Struggling
I’m pretty frugal by nature, but it was two years ago that my thrifty mentality cemented itself as a way of life. Have you ever been truly broke? Like needing to make the last $60 in your checking account stretch more than a week broke?
I have. I graduated college in New England in 2011, with no job and a mountain of student loans. I moved to Austin and waited tables for two years after graduation, trying and failing to find a full-time job with my English degree. I made enough to pay my bills, and I could grab a drink one or two nights a week. But I wasn’t saving, and any emergency costs went straight on my credit card.
Despite the fact that I had no money, I was also nursing a serious case of wanderlust. So in the name of YOLO—you only live once—I took two weeks off from my waitressing gig and flew to London, Belfast and Dublin. My plane ticket cost $1,000, and I spent another $600 between food, drinks and travel expenses.
My overseas trip made me want to see more of the world, but I came back seriously stressed. I’d charged everything to my credit card, and I had no plan for how to pay it off. That new debt, combined with my student loans, combined with the fact that I was still waiting tables, put me $20K in the hole, and that hit me like a ton of bricks. I realized that if I didn’t get a handle on my spending, my finances would continue to spiral out of control.
Blogging My Way Out of Debt
I got serious about personal money management in 2014 by starting a blog, From Frugal to Free, to chronicle my attempt to budget and repay debt. First, I started tracking and minimizing my spending. I shared a house with friends, and my rent was already low at roughly $500 a month. So I cut corners in other ways: I began making my own coffee at home, walking or biking to work instead of driving and shopping almost exclusively at Goodwill.
I also increased my income by taking on some creative side hustles. I coached high school lacrosse, worked as a nanny and did freelance work as a writer and social media manager. In one year I doubled my $15K-per-year waitress salary.
Slowly but surely my financial life turned around. The changes I’ve implemented have led me to today: I’m debt-free and working for myself as a blogger while taking on part-time gigs to supplement my earnings. In the past six months I’ve spent only $64 on clothes and $129 on gas. I’ve shelled out less than $20 on coffee and only $143 on eating out.
Here's the best part: The money I’m saving allows me to indulge my love of travel. I visited Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in March, then in May spent a week in Boston before I took the road trip to Big Bend. I’ve got a much longer road trip across the country planned for the fall. Prioritizing something you love means you can save and then have the money for it when the time comes.
My Cheap Travel Tricks
So back to my four-day vacation at Big Bend. Here’s exactly what I did to make that journey happen so cheaply. The trip took place the first weekend of May, but I started saving toward it long before then. I picked the dates two months in advance. I looked up how long it would take us to get there and the gas prices in the area. I knew exactly how many meals we’d be eating and how much we would need to camp each night.
Having all this information meant I could estimate costs and then brainstorm ways to reduce them. For example, I hit up the grocery store before we left so we could bring all our food with us: veggie and hummus wraps, bagels, peanut butter, protein bars and trail mix. Making your own meals is vastly cheaper than buying fast food or overpriced gas station snacks on the road.
Road trips are also a lot less expensive than trips that involve airfare. Just by choosing not to get on a plane, we saved money. Rather than jet off to a hotel in Vegas, we drove to a campsite, which cost us only a $3 park entry fee and $8 per night for the site. No hotel or Airbnb in the world will give you prices that low.
If you think that traveling is outside your budget or has to cost an entire month's paycheck, I encourage you to reassess your travel plans. Simple changes in both your day-to-day life and your travel style can add up to big savings. Can you stay with a friend to eliminate hotel fees? Can you cut out one expense for a month and sock away that money for the trip?
Take a look at your travel plans for this summer, and try to adjust your spending so you can organize a big, exciting trip without using too much plastic or piling on debt. You’ll be amazed at the changes you’re capable of when you alter your spending to make a goal happen.