If you would have told me ten years ago that I was three months into a year-long round the world trip, I would have asked, “How?!” How does that idea of even find it’s way into someone’s head? How does one save enough money to travel for an entire year? How do they plan for something like that? How would I even know where to begin?
Well, I’ll begin at the beginning…I was a month out from departing on a summer adventure unlike any I’d ever had. I had just booked my final tickets for a summer of backpacking through Southeast Asia. And then I met this girl. They say, “When you know, you know.” Well, this was like that. A week after we started dating, we were talking about moving in together, and it wasn’t even two weeks before we’d said we loved each other. Instead of planning a wedding for the following year, we talked about planning something a little different.
Deciding to do it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. As with most things out of the norm, it kind of started as an overture in sarcasm. One wanderlust filled soul to the other: If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go? It was the quintessential question anyone like us would want to know. From there, we began throwing countries into a hat and, not surprisingly, wanted to go to almost all of the same places. At this point, still not really believing that it would ever happen, we narrowed down the list and thought about the cost. When we finally saw the route we planned on paper and did the math to prove it could be done, the snowflakes that were our ideas coalesced into a small ball, which began rolling slowly down the hill of time. It was at that point, a little less than a year before taking off on this crazy journey, that we actually decided to do it.
We had a rough idea of where we wanted to go, but our list was nearly exhaustive and without completely dropping out of the working world for years, we knew we’d have to pare it down. We decided on Micronesia, Southeast Asia, Nepal, India, and the East African nations of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. It had been four years and I really wanted to get back to Micronesia and revisit some of the friends and good memories I had there and so Jenna could understand the place that so deeply impacted me. Having just traveled in SE Asia, I normally wouldn’t have been keen on returning so soon, but the prospect of showing Jenna all these cool places I had just encountered was appealing in itself. Jenna had her eye on a volunteer opportunity in India, I on one in Kenya, and for us, Africa represented the culmination and possible final stop on our yearish abroad. But the one place that had been in my mind as a young child gazing through National Geographic magazines, the one place that held the grandest of mountains, the one place at the top of both of our lists was Nepal. So we put it smack in the middle of our journey and planned around it. From there, we got to work researching our route, the vaccinations it would require, the visas we’d need, the essentials we’d need to take with us, and eventually, in a multi-day effort to get the most bang for our travel buck, got our first flights booked.
For some people, a single week vacation to a far off place can run in the many thousands of dollars. But to me, spending money is like pulling teeth and if I were to spend that kind of money even once, it would sour whatever amazing experiences I may have had. Having just returned from a summer traveling, I had an idea on how much it would cost. The prior summer I had traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, and England over the course of about seven weeks for what amounted to just under $3000. Flip brain switch to math mode. My spending in the summer of 2015 came to about $425 per week. Annualizing this figure would mean that if the rate of spending I had on my solo journey remained constant, over the course of a year, I would have spent $22,000. This became the figure we were shooting for. Each.
Even though I complain about how much I am paid as a teacher in Arizona and how much of a raw deal it is (disclaimer: I LOVE MY JOB!) to work a minimum of 50 hours per week and get paid a fraction of what others with multiple advanced degrees and jobs with similar levels of responsibility earn, I do alright. But that’s because I’m allergic to spending money. It irks me. It pains me. On a fundamental level, I disagree with it. Because of this aspect of my personality and the austerity measures I take as a result of it, unlike many other teachers I know, I’m actually able to save a good sum of money every year. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been able to save about $13,000 each year, which is just under half of my take home pay. Of course, last year, I spent $3000 on travel, so by the end of this year, I was able to have about $23,000 saved for the trip over the course of two years. Travel nest egg set.
“But how the heck could you do that?” one may ask. The short answer is: I. Don’t. Spend. Money. A more detailed answer reveals how limited my personal expenses really are. My share of the rent was only $400 and utilities are low because it’s a small place and we use very little power and water. We don’t have cable and my cell phone plan is on the cheaper side. I have no car payment because I drive a beater Honda Accord and paid it off way back in 2009. I have no debt other than nominal low interest rate student loans. We eat at home most of the time. My rock climbing hobby, after the initial outlay of about $1000, is essentially free except for gas up the mountain every weekend. I buy second hand clothes, since I’ve always thought vintage to be cooler than current styles and I bought an entire wardrobe of work clothes in Vietnam last year for about $200. I work out after school at the gym on campus, which has saved me about $1000 alone over the last two years. Essentially, I don’t buy stuff and when I do, it’s with careful consideration and it’s usually something that will invariably bring me joy and save me money. The long and short of it is that I live very frugally but still get to do exactly what I want to do all the time, which is spend time with Jenna, teach, climb, travel, play music every so often, see live music in the off chance someone I like comes to Tucson, hang with my family and friends, etc., by not buying stuff. Keeping up with the Jones’, I don’t.
The meaningful things you sacrifice for travel are the real costs involved. By traveling I’m not able to continue working, at least not as a teacher in Arizona. This was something I really valued and enjoyed, and leaving it is one of the last things I’d want to do. Jenna feels the same way about her job. But dedicating yourself to something on this scale requires making some hard choices. Did we want to leave our jobs? No. Why did we leave them? Because we understood that the window to travel around the world with the person you love is small and fleeting. We also understood that there’s a very good chance we’ll be able to come right back to the professions we love when we return. My school district obviously can’t guarantee anything but they’ve said quite clearly that they’d love to have me back. And given the teacher shortage in Arizona, there’s a good chance it will happen. For me, it’s the seniors whose graduation I’ll miss that will bother me the most.
Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things for people to do, well me, at least. Which was why it was so hard to peace out on my friends for a year. Jenna and I were really beginning to form some mutual friendships, and I can’t fail to mention my climbing buddies, with whom I was starting to break into some new ground. Probably the hardest thing to sacrifice is a year away from family. Not to say that we don’t constantly miss our families, but we’re feeling pretty good on that front, at least for now. We’ve been able to Facetime numerous times with our sisters, and our parents are planning to visit us on our travels. Jenna’s mom plans to meet us in Africa and we just finished up two weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia with my parents.
Leaving our jobs was tough, leaving our friends and family for a year wasn’t any easier, but there was one thing we left behind that may have been the most difficult. By embarking on a year of travel we left behind our old lives. We were moving towards a beautiful future together. By putting those old lives on hold for a year, we’re essentially pressing the pause button, as we frolic while we can. We’d love to have a child and buy a house and continue building friendships and bonding with each others’ families and refining our crafts and playing in the mountains and all those things that make ‘life back home’ so meaningful and appealing. But that window to our dream was small and fleeting, and we knew that if we didn’t take this chance, it would be another 30 years until a similar opportunity availed itself again. For all the work we put into this venture, and all the sacrifices we made, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention again that we’ve had heaps of help and luck along the way.
And here we are, three months into a year of traveling and if you ask me now how we’re doing it, I’d be hard pressed to find you one definitive answer. We’ve been in countries with which we are very familiar and countries with which we are not. The countries of the latter are all we have left. We’re about to leave Thailand for the largely undeveloped southern coast of Myanmar tomorrow and what lies ahead is anyone’s guess.
*In posts to follow, I’ll put into words exactly how we’re making this happen, specifically, how we’re able to travel on less than most people spend living domestically. The tagline for these posts will be “How to travel the world on the cheap”. The first installment will speak in terms of how to most inexpensively get from point “A” to point “Paradise.”