A Practical Guide to Vagabonding and Long Term Travel (Part 6): The Cost of Living on the Road
by Nora Dunn | October, 2008
You’re doing it. You made the decision to travel long-term; decided how much money you needed to get started; took care of all the pesky details; geared up for the road; and figured out your niche for earning money abroad. You’ve made it!
Now we come full circle a bit, to touch upon the cost of living while you are on the road. If you weren’t sure of how much money to write in the various spending categories in your journal when you started, here are some practical tips to help you make sure you budget the right amounts and don’t go overboard.
How Are You Paying for Things on the Road?
I’m a big fan of using my credit card for almost everything. So wherever I can and for a variety of reasons, I pay for things with plastic. However this isn’t always easy to do depending on where you go, especially if you are visiting small cultural markets or wayward towns and are hoping to get a bargain. For that, you’ll need cash.
I also must note that I am an extremely disciplined person, with the ability to spend within my means and pay off my credit card balance in full every month. If you can’t do this yourself, then do yourself a favor and leave the plastic at home.
Actually, sadly you can’t. You’ll need a credit card in many cases to book travel and accommodations, and will have to present your card at check-in to verify the purchase. But if you know yourself well enough to know that spending can be a problem with credit cards, then ask to have your credit limit reduced to an amount that won’t put you into a financial tailspin if you overspend, but will allow you to make travel arrangements as needed.
Managing Your Finances
Hopefully at this point in your vagabonding journey, you have automated your bills and are able to handle all your banking online with ease. With a simple internet connection once in a while, you can manage your finances without much ado.
- Log on to your bank account at least every two weeks to check for strange activity and monitor your own transactions (eg: ATM withdrawals and associated exchange rates).
- Transfer any excess balances in your bank account (if you are lucky enough to receive ongoing income electronically or have deposits made for you, for example with rental income to your high-interest savings account.
- Pay your credit card on-time, if not early, every month. Be sure to monitor the exact charges to your card and keep an eye on the exchange rates in so doing.
- Change your passwords regularly. And choose passwords with both letters (upper case and lower case) and numbers for higher security. When you enter passwords in public places, be sure to type in such a way that an onlooker can’t figure out what you’re typing.
- If using a wireless connection on your laptop to do your banking, as soon as you are finished, disconnect the wireless internet option entirely, and shut down the computer, to prevent a hacker’s malicious intrusion on your accounts.
Aside from accommodation and flights, food will be your biggest budget-eater while living the life of a vagabond, especially if you’re not careful.
It’s all too easy to get sucked into going to dinner with new friends and other travelers every day of the week. And with a round of beers bought here and there, all of a sudden you blew the budget for a week in just a night or two.
Recently, I went out for a “Taco Tuesday” special with a number of other travelers. It was a great deal for Hawaii: $2 beers, and $2.50 tacos. Most of the travelers managed to eat dinner prior and nurse a few beers over the course of the night, with maybe one taco ordered for good measure. Their bills: well under $10 each. But one traveler who hadn’t quite grasped the idea yet made the ultimate faux pas: he went overboard. $30 later, he was full of tacos and beer, but $30 lighter: an amount that could have paid for more than a night of accommodation or a week of healthy dinners made at the hostel.
Here are a few tips to help you keep your food expenses manageable:
- Prepare your meals instead of eating out, and get creative. Not all budget meals have to consist of boiled pasta with salt & pepper.
- You must make sure that you maintain your health on the road. There’s no point in being a vagabond if you are ill all the time. Make sure you get all the nutrients you need – all the food groups, please!
- Carnivores: consider the life of an omnivore. My boyfriend was a devout carnivore before we started traveling. Meat (or fish) had to be a part of at least two meals a day in order to be considered a meal. In one of the places we ended up doing some work-trade, we were incredibly remote and eating meat regularly wasn’t possible. So, we bought dried beans and made batches of rice (or wheat berries, or pasta, or quinoa, or couscous) and beans that would last a few days. One night we’d use it as a base for a stir fry; another night it became Mexican; and another yet we tossed some Indian spices in there for a biryani to die for. Not only did he find the meals incredibly satisfying, but we saved tons of money and he lost 30 pounds of excess weight without even trying.
We touched on the concept of working in trade for accommodation already, and depending on the type of travel you wish to experience and where you want to go, there is no way to determine definitively how much money you’ll need. Your options include:
- House or pet-sitting
- Working in trade for accommodation
- Hostels (often dormitory style lodging, where you sacrifice some privacy but pay much less and can cook in the kitchen facilities)
- Hotels, resorts, bed & breakfasts
- Camping (in many ways, camping can cost more than you think, with permits, food, and equipment; camp carefully and wisely)
You will be overwhelmingly motivated to buy stuff while you travel. No really. With a variety of different sights and smells dominating your senses, and a culture of materialism behind you, you’ll want to dress like the locals, buy their crafts and wares, and you will surely at some point try to justify that touristy little souvenir as something you’ll treasure for life, or maybe even get some use out of.
Beware of buying stuff you only need temporarily. It can kill a vagabond’s travel budget very quickly.
Or – you’ll convince yourself of all the things you need – absolutely need – to survive through the few months you are stationed in one place. You can sell it afterwards and recoup at least some of your money, right?
Guilty as charged: in Hawaii I got sucked into buying fishing gear, snorkels and masks and fins, and a variety of other items that would surely pay for themselves with usage and be entirely saleable when we leave. In some cases, we got some fair use out of what we bought. But in almost no instances were we able to resell what we bought and recover any money outlaid. Beware of buying stuff you only need temporarily. It can kill a vagabonder’s travel budget very quickly.
Are You Traveling Sustainably, or Going All Out for an Adventure?
By now, you are a seasoned vagabond, even if you haven’t left your couch. You know all the basics of long-term travel: mentally preparing yourself and setting goals, planning for and managing your finances, taking care of the little details, getting the gear you need, earning some cash to supplement your travels, and managing your expenses frugally on the road.
And ideally, you have already figured out the answer to the big question in the preparation and soul-searching process of becoming a vagabond: do you plan to travel in a sustainable manner, or go all out for an adventure?
Friends of mine sold their belongings and became vagabonds for one year. They managed to make a hefty profit with the sale of their house, and responsibly tucked away the principal for setting up shop again when they went home, and took a chunk of the profits for the trip of a lifetime. In one year, they spent $30,000. They admit that in many cases they could have curbed expenses and cut corners, but that was not the idea of this trip for them. They wanted to really do whatever they wished; and they did.
But now they have the travel bug, and are planning to go home to work and save money, and return to the world of travel – this time on a considerably more frugal budget. They have no regrets, and a treasure chest of worldly experiences that would make any traveler drool.
Do you have the cash to go all out on such an adventure? Would you like to use the money you saved to travel perpetually with no need to earn money along the way, and return home after six months or a year to save up and do it again?
Or would you like to make your vagabonding choice a more permanent one, and attempt to sustain yourself on the road for as long as the travel bug ails you? You’ll have to make some sacrifices along the way – in not always taking the excursions you may wish, going out with new friends, or buying stuff on a whim. You’ll also have to work part-time (earning money online or otherwise) along the way to keep the travel account from depleting.
Being a vagabond in essence means breaking the rules. Don’t be afraid to hang it all out there in search of your dreams, going against what others may think is best.
But to live a life on the road, creating your home wherever you may be, meeting new friends and expanding your horizons constantly, and appreciating culture and the world for what it is – is priceless.
Either way – go with your heart and desire. Being a vagabond in essence means breaking the rules.
Don’t be afraid to hang it all out there in search of your dreams, possibly going against what others around you think is best.
Don’t be afraid to change the rules of the game mid-way if something isn’t working for you; this is your playing field, so you get to call the shots.
Be sure to make responsible decisions every step of the way; don’t tear apart your life and wantonly spend every penny you have partying on the road, only to find yourself older, unhealthier, lonely, hung over, homeless, and lost. That is not what vagabonding is.
Becoming a vagabond is about the journey through change. Everybody travels for different reasons: to find something or somebody, to learn, to redefine themselves, or to just be able to experience and share some killer stories of high adventure. Whatever your reasons are, they are valid.
So … what are you waiting for?
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About the Author
Nora Dunn is the The Professional Hobo, a woman who sold everything she owned (including a busy financial planning practice) in 2006 and has been travelling the world in a financially sustainable way ever since. She is an internationally published freelance writer on the topics of travel, personal finance, and lifestyle design, with columns on Wisebread, Flight Network, and Care One. Check out her latest musings on Facebook and Twitter.