Let’s face it… travel ain’t cheap.
Yeah, you can live off $50 or less per day while travelling in many countries. Hell, in some parts of South and Southeast Asia you can get apparently by on less than $20 a day if you’re really roughing it. But while sticking to a shoestring budget can be a fun and deeply satisfying challenge for a little while, at least, you’ll probably find that you’re depriving yourself. And even if you can hold to an ultra-minimal budget for the whole duration of your trip, it’s still crucial to have money in reserve in case you need to make an emergency return, or in case the opportunity for an adventure you can’t resist comes along while you’re on the road.
Budgeting for a trip itself (flights, accommodations, food, etc.) is a whole different beast, one that I’ll get into in a later post (once I have the chance to reflect back on this first big trip to China). But even before figuring out a travel budget, you need to get your money in order, back in the real world. You need a life budget. Here’s a handful of ways to save up.
1. Ditch the Car
This is one that I just couldn’t bring myself around to, but there’s no denying that a car (even a car like mine, that was given to me for free) is a big money sink. Right off the bat, if you’re leasing or financing the purchase of a car you haven’t yet paid off, you’re dealing with monthly or bi-weekly payments (and usually, interest). Then there’s the cost of insurance, the cost of gas, maintenance costs, repair costs, etc. My car may have been free, but it’s also 14 years old, which means a buttload of money that’s been dumped into repairs over the years. I’d ditch it in a heartbeat if I didn’t need it for work.
So what’s the alternative? You could carpool if that’s an option; pitching in for gas will cost a lot less than filling your own tank, never mind the fact that you don’t need to pay for maintenance on the car. Alternatively, you could take public transportation — bus, subway, whatever — if that’s available to you; if I worked in the city I live in, I’d happily shell out for a bus pas. To my mind, though, the best option if you can manage it would be to bike. Biking has the benefit of being “green” (a bit of gasping produces a lot less CO2 than a car), and being a good workout.
Even if, like me, you can’t ditch the car altogether, you can at least reduce your usage. Unless I desperately need to go somewhere in a torrential downpour, I try to leave the car parked as much as possible on weekends, and will bike or walk anywhere within a reasonable distance. Even if it only saves me $20 a month in gas, little savings start to add up.
2. Budget. And, Like, Actually Stick To It.
This one is a no brainer for some, and an eye opener for others. How was I spending so much on vegan baked goods? I spent how much at that bar?! Five bucks here, thirty bucks there… small expenditures add up quick.
I am not a natural-born budgeter. It’s taken my parents, my sister, a couple of supremely money-wise friends, and finally my girlfriend to cajole me into this particular branch of what the kids these days are calling “adulting”.
I started off with a spreadsheet (oh those spreadsheets!) that my friend Michael whipped up for me, that would track my debt, savings, rent, and expenses. I hewed to it for a while but just couldn’t hang on to it.
Earlier this year, when I was having trouble getting my employer to pay me properly, I wound up signing up for Mint, a free money/expense tracking application from the people who make TurboTax. Mint aggregates information from your bank accounts, credit cards, students loans, lines of credit, and so on, and helps you create a balanced budget, figure out what you’re spending and where, and find out where you can save money. It’s been super useful for ironing out my finances, while I wait for a huge backpay winfall ($15k and counting!)
3. Skip the Coffee Shop/Bar/Restaurant/[Insert Expensive Outing Here]
This is one that I have been able to follow, for the most part. Every now and then, it’s still nice to stop in at a friendly neighbourhood coffee shop, but by brewing my own, I save easily a few bucks every day… even compared to the near-toxic sludge that the coffee machine at my work spits out, which only costs $1.50 per cup. A pound of good beans from a local roaster costs $16, and considering a single cup made with my aeropress only takes ~17 grams, that means that bag is good for about 26+ cups, which works out to $0.65 per cup. Granted, the Aeropress isn’t free, but considering I’ve been using mine for four years now, it’s more than paid for itself. And that’s just the coffee. A night out at the bar is an order of magnitude more expensive. And restaurants ain’t cheap, either; learn to cook! Get a bunch of friends together for a potluck brunch!
Now, saving money doesn’t mean you have to live like a monk. I’m certainly no poster-child for asceticism; I still get together with friends fairly often for a couple of beers, but a 500ml can consumed at a backyard barbecue or picnic will usually cost $3 or less, whereas a pint in a pub can cost as much as $10!
With all that said, don’t stop living. If you’ve got to hit the bar, or grab a cup of coffee at Bridgehead, or get a fancy brunch on Sunday morning, go for it. Just, you know, try to cut back where possible.
4. Lose the Cable TV.
Seriously, who watches TV shows on a TV anymore? You’re a traveller, you’ve got bigger fish to fry. I cribbed this one from my sister and her husband, from back when they were saving money to travel around Europe.
Cable/satellite TV are crazy expensive (at least, they are in Canada), and the idea that any TV “is must-see TV” is marketing BS. If you’re really getting the shakes from TV withdrawal, a $13/month Netflix account — like the one I share with family members, thus lowering the cost even further — will still get you access to plenty of content, and still costs way less than cable. And if the shows you
want need to watch aren’t on Netflix/Amazon/Hulu/whatever, make friends with someone who does have cable and watches the same show, and make a ritual out of watching with them.
5. Open a Savings Account for Travel
This is the newest one for me. Between paying off student loans and having a crappy-paying job for so long (on top of all my pre-budget bad spending habits), I never really managed to build up any savings. I’ve got a decent job now (though I’ve had a bit of an ordeal with the pay for the past year), and I’ve managed to get my spending in order, so it was high time I got a savings account. I wound up going with Tangerine (formerly ING Direct), and set it up so that every paycheck I get, a percentage of it gets transferred into savings. The interest rate isn’t much (at best, I only earn 2.4%), but the money is easily available if I need to make a transfer, and keeping it outside my checking account means I’m not tempted to spend it frivolously.
Even beyond those five points, there’s a near-endless sea of options for saving money:
- If travel is what you want to do long term, you can sell off some of your stuff! My big ol’ collection of LPs is nice, but if I were gone 6+ months of the year, I wouldn’t be getting much use out of all that vinyl; meanwhile, selling it could net me some quick cash.
- If you can manage it, downsize to a smaller apartment! It could mean saving a few hundred bucks a month.
- Take advantage of the new, thriving barter economy! Ottawa and Toronto have an app (and Facebook groups) called Bunz, where you can trade stuff you’re looking to get rid of for stuff you want. I’ve moved some of my sillier impulse purchases from Ottawa’s Great Glebe Garage sale through Bunz, and gotten things like coffee, beer, and cleaning supplies in return.
- If you’re going to use a credit card, might as well get one that nets you rewards! Banks and other credit providers all have cards that will yield some kind of reward for use, whether it be some form of travel points or a percentage of your purchase as cash back. My card gave me a starting bonus of tens of thousands of Aeroplan Miles (useful for me as I live in Canada) for hitting their minimum spending threshold within 3 months of getting the card, and then gives me miles based on how much I spend with it, and a bonus for any flight I book with Air Canada.
- Freelance! If you have a skill that lends itself to freelancing — writing, photography, accounting, etc — you can earn a lot on the side. I’ve let my freelance photography biz slide a fair bit, but you can bet I’ll be getting back into it when I return home, to help fund the next round of travel!
… and so on. Every penny you save can be put toward travel. And, man, those pennies sure add up.