If I tell you that I saved up $50,000 to travel the world while living in New York City, what do you imagine that my job was? Perhaps an investment banker, or a lawyer, or maybe one of those consultants that no one actually knows what they do (themselves included)? Nope, the truth is, nothing so glamorous.
I was a public school teacher for 5 looooong years.
You may wonder how on earth I managed this. Don’t public school teachers make next to nothing? Isn’t NYC expensive as hell? Yup and yup. Saving money without a fancy job is hard. But I’m here to tell you that it’s possible – with effort, strategy, and prioritizing.
Another thing: I didn’t pinch every penny for those 5 years. I actually traveled to 17 countries while holding down a full-time job and simultaneously saving up $50,000. If I had really buckled down and focused on saving money and held off on the travel, I could have done it sooner.
I also nursed a serious wine habit, because how else are you going to survive the Department of Education?
But in all seriousness, here’s how I managed that seemingly impossible feat. It’s not meant to be a step by step guide for you to do the same. I can’t know your salary, your debts, your cost of living, and your lifestyle. Maybe your potential savings are smaller than mine, or maybe they’re much higher. This is just my story of how I financed my escape from the 9 to 5 — or the 8 to 3, as my case may be.
I set clear saving goals
I used Mint to help me track my spending and set goals. My goal was to save $1,000 per month. For every month I saved, I’d gain about a month of future travel, using my benchmark of $1,000 per month for backpacking in cheap countries.
My goal was $48,000, which would be enough for 4 years of shoestring traveling. Honestly, though, I’ve since started traveling a little more expensively – spending more around $1200 to $1500 per month – since I attained part-time freelance work on Upwork.
I had no debt
I know that this is easier said than done for Americans. Student loan debt seems to be a birthright for us. I’ve spoken about my privilege before and how my parents’ ability to pay for my undergraduate degree has given me a huge advantage. I later obtained a scholarship for my Master’s degree in Education, keeping me debt-free.
This is just to be honest and up front – not to tell you that having no debt is the only way to save up a large sum of money to travel. But if you want to save up to travel, you’ll want to get rid of any “bad debt” — credit card debt and extortionary private loans — if you want to make any serious headway. Focus first on paying back that debt. As for your low-interest student loans, you can factor the cost of paying them off into your monthly budget for traveling.
I changed the way I socialized
When I was younger, I went out to bars — a lot. It’s kind of what happens when your college campus is literally New York City.
As I got older, I realized I had more fun inviting friends over for a home-cooked dinner and wine, or hanging in the park with cheese and wine (notice a theme here?), or meeting up at a museum. All these things are drastically cheaper than going out to a bar, getting hopelessly drunk, eating questionable amounts of fried chicken, and cabbing it home.
I took the initiative to plan budget-friendly outings rather than always waiting to be invited somewhere. When something came up that screamed massive money drain – like a birthday dinner (this cheap bitch’s worst nightmare) or a weekend trip I wasn’t really into – I wasn’t afraid to decline politely and offer an alternative later.
I streamlined my food, transit and rent spend
Rent is a huge drain in New York City. I opted for living in less hip neighborhoods to save a couple hundred bucks a month. I had my own studio apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn for just over $1,000 a month, which gave me quite a bit of money to be able to save each month.
I also lived with a boyfriend for a year, which cut my living expenses in half. While I don’t recommend moving in with a significant other just to save on rent, it did significantly help me save money.
To save on transit, I rode a bicycle 13 miles to work each day for 3 years, which saved me approximately $4,000 as opposed to taking the subway. Yes, even in the winter, because I’m a maniac.
I also ate really cheaply by cooking most of my own meals or making sure that I split my takeaway meals into two portions, sometimes bulking it up with extra rice or bread. There were takeout places in Ridgewood, where I worked, and Flatbush where I could easily get two meals’ worth of Caribbean, Spanish, or Soul food for $6 — at $3 per meal, it didn’t break the bank to eat those meals out.
When I cooked for myself, the food blog Budget Bytes was my cooking bible. I learned so many amazing recipes from that website. I joined a food co-op, despite the insufferable hippieishness of its patrons, to save on fresh produce and ethically raised meat. I bought all my grains in bulk from the co-op or ethnic grocery stores.
I checked my local grocery store’s weekly sales circular and stocked up on canned, frozen, and dried goods whenever there was a sale. I froze all my leftovers and made my own chicken stock and yes, even my own beans. A bit obsessive, yes, but there’s no denying all the money I saved!
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When it came to travel, I didn’t always go to the first country that struck my mind. I used flight comparison websites like Skyscanner (other good choices for cheap flights for Australia is Webjet, and Momondo for Asia – I usually try a variety of comparison websites before making a final booking to make sure I’m getting the best price!) in order to pick the cheapest country I was interested in, then made a plan from there. By doing that, I got deals such as Sweden for $400 roundtrip, Turkey for $500 roundtrip, and Puerto Rico for $200 roundtrip.
I took on every opportunity to gain extra work or pay
As a teacher, I took on a lot of paid after school work in order to have extra funds to travel. We have something called “per session” work that nets you about $42 per hour — not a bad supplement to my less than stellar paycheck. I also worked two summers, which netted me $5,000+ each summer.
I also researched how to get a raise in the DOE and worked my butt off to attain 30 college credits by taking language aptitude tests and independent study courses. That earned me an extra $6,000 per year pre-tax, which made a huge difference. Of course, that won’t apply for everyone, but you can easily gain extra work on Upwork or other online freelancing websites. Hone a skill like SEO or editing and monetize that.
I wasn’t perfect
I could have saved more, or spent less time saving the amount that I did. I saved that money over the span of five years. Had I canned the traveling temporarily and truly focused on saving, I probably could have done it in two or three years.
I had my vices: I spent far too much on artisanal cheeses and even more on my wine nerd habit. I planned my weekends around eating dumplings. I made impulsive decisions like buying a ticket to Belize or Puerto Rico to escape New York for three or four day trips. I did these things not out of weakness, but because I value my happiness.
Constantly questioning your decision to buy everything can be a bit of a drain on morale. Don’t beat yourself up on your past expenditures, and don’t be too stubborn to treat yourself when you know it’ll improve a difficult day.
The real trick is persistence. Saving money is a marathon, not a sprint. Work out where in the world inspires you most, and figure out how much it costs to get there. Start setting realistic goals. Hold yourself accountable to them. Over time, you’ll see your savings grow and grow, and you too can quit your job and travel the world. But you have to want to.
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