The problem with “how I afford to travel” posts

English teaching summer camp, Taiwan.
“I get all the ladies.”

I’ve noticed a weird pattern that emerges whenever long-term travelers talk about how they’re able to afford their lifelong travel adventures. Since money issues are at the top of the list for most people, this is often the most frequent question that long-term or frequent travelers receive. And unfortunately, I’ve seen quite a few that don’t bother answering the question as directly as they should.

Generally you’ll see statements like these:

“Because I work, dammit!”

“I just don’t spend stupid amounts of money on fancy hotels, duh!”

“I’m not an idiot who buys designer shoes!”

“Travel can be cheap!”

Okay, fair enough. In some cases, that’s exactly what certain readers need to hear, particularly the ones who accuse any long-term traveler of being a trust fund kid with infinite money. It’s perfectly acceptable to slap these people in the face and tell them they’re idiots. Metaphorically.

But at the same time, it doesn’t really answer the question for those who are legitimately interested in how to travel for several months on a limited budget. They already know that working is how you get money. And they probably already know that staying in hostels, cooking for yourself, skipping taxis, and going to cheap countries will keep costs down. None of this is new information to them.

Sure, there are people out there who have no idea how to stay in a hotel with less than 4 stars, but I doubt they’re reading budget travel blogs. The readers asking these questions are probably aware of many of these strategies already, and if they look at the cost estimates for 1 month of travel, it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder how a 22 year old can afford to do it for 12.

You know what I rarely see? Travelers who flat out say “yeah, you need a lot of money to travel. In fact if you want to go for a long-term trip during which you’ll have no income then you’ll need several thousand dollars.”

I have no idea why this is so rare.

The majority of the time I’ll see people talk about how cheaply they can travel, how they don’t spend money exorbitantly, how they’re brilliantly talented at saving for a rainy day, and how you should totally learn from them and everything will be great.

Gold Museum, Bogotá, Colombia
“I am literally MADE OF GOLD! Muahahaha!”

But then somewhere along the lines they’ll say “And I had $20,000 before I left on the trip.”

Aha. So that’s the secret. Having a lot of money.

Now I don’t mean to call people out on this; in fact in many cases, I’ve seen people describe exactly how they saved that money, and exactly how they spent it on the trip, with no ego whatsoever. Merely a realistic presentation of saving and spending. That’s fine. In fact in many cases it’s exactly what some people need. A simple reminder that you can skip dinner and drinks and new shoes and save the cash instead.

But I’ve also seen a lot of high-and-mighty “I just don’t spend money on designer handbags” kind of talk, which…well, some people need to hear that, sure. But for many others, that is simply not the problem at all. And it bothers me when people fail to recognize this.

I mean, think about how much of a struggle it is for people to save up $20,000. Living expenses, depending on where you are, may very well be $20,000, which means you’d need a job that pays $40,000 (after taxes) in order to save all that money in a year. And for plenty of people who are only earning $20,000 a year, well…you can see why they ask where the money comes from. And I think it’s rather disrespectful to say “I just worked hard and saved” when the real answer was “I had a job that paid way more than yours.”

Now imagine if that person has ridiculous medical bills. Or their car breaks down and they can’t get to work anymore. Or if they have to bail out a friend who’ll never be in a position to pay them back. Or if they get robbed. Or outsourced. Or whatever. Telling them “I just don’t shop at Gucci” is incredibly rude.

Now I’m all for giving useful advice on how to save, and love reading over expense reports after a month of travel in whatever country, because that’s the exact sort of advice people can use. And I’m all for telling people not to buy useless garbage, and recommending they save the money instead. That’s all great.

But I’m also in favor of telling people that if they want to travel the world for a year without getting a job along the way or hitchhiking and begging for food the whole time, they probably need around $15,000 to do it. And even then, they’ll have to budget carefully.

If they accuse you of being rich, then by all means, smack them upside the head. But if they ask where you came up with $20,000 at age 21 or whatever, just tell them.

And don’t be a jerk about it.

Unless they were jerks first. Then go for it.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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81 Comments on “The problem with “how I afford to travel” posts”

  1. Love love love this post!
    You really get your point across without falling into whites and blacks.
    I’ve actually thought a couple of times on posting detailed expense reports on my trips, but then felt like they might be a bit ‘dry’ and ‘boring’. Maybe I’ll go ahead with them anyway now!

    1. Thanks. It was sort of a fine line I was walking here, since obviously it’s not everyone that does this. And I think detailed expense reports are incredibly useful, and if you’re keeping track of expenses anyway, you probably have all that info ready to go, so it wouldn’t be too hard to post it.

  2. You make a very good point and I completely agree with you. Extensive/long-term travel just isn’t possible without some decent amount of cash. The conversation about spending money on travel vs. other things is a bit of double standard topic, though, and I think that’s why many people respond with the defensive ‘I don’t buy Gucci” line.

    For example, I have plenty of friend with 40K cars and when they are new, they are more than happy to show them off on FB and brag about their purchase. Good for them and may they spend their money however they want, but almost never does someone pipe up and demand ‘How do you afford that?” Houses and clothes are the same way. People seem to give each other a pass on spending money on those types of purchases, but travel is immediately scrutinized as some kind of “rich persons” pastime. It does get to be old, especially when you duct tape the handle back on your 12 year old car and remind yourself that you would rather drive a pile of junk and go to Europe. ;)

    1. Good point. “How can you possibly afford a new car?” would be considered rude in most cases. But “how do you afford $15,000 worth of travel per year” is somehow just fine, even if it’s less money than the car.

    2. Jessica, I love your comment! It’s sooo true! It’s perfectly socially acceptable, even lauded, to spend money on a new car or a mortgage but spending on travel – no way, you must be rich! When really, I just don’t have a new car and have put off having a mortgage till way after everyone else in my peer group bought a place. It’s fine to question my choice to save and spend $20k on travel a year, but it seems perfectly reasonable for people to buy a coffee daily and pay for city parking every day? I don’t go to *them* and say – wow you drink a cappucino every morning! You must be rich!

    3. Great post Jessica.

      I will admit to being irked when people tell me they can’t afford to travel. But yet the same people will post pictures of $15 lunches on Facebook every day, or recap their trips to Starbucks or “cute new dresses I bought this weekend!”. It makes me want to nitpick, but at the same time, I would never because its not my business to tell someone where to spend their paychecks. But at the same time, they are questioning mine….

      I have also discovered that someone who does not travel much can ask me for advice. I can type out tons of tips that will never get used because the person receiving the advice that they asked for, just has no interest in hearing anything other than the magic website they assume I use to push one button and have a cheapo trip pop up. Research, research, research.

      1. Yes, this is certainly valid. Some people really think it’s some special technique, and they want to hear “just do this for 20 minutes a day” and be done with it. They’re usually the ones that need to be told to cut down on their fancy purchases.

  3. Really awesome post! I have actually been noticing the same trend as well. People tend to not be just straight up and tell them how they finance such extended travels. When travelling I often times get asked how I can afford to travel for so long and still have money to feed myself. I am always straight with them and tell that I am a travelling web designer and am actually working 40 hours a week while I am on the road. If it were not for this I could not afford to travel (the way I want to) at all and would be struggling to save the $20,000 it takes to travel for the extended trips. The fact is that travelling is expensive and you need to have the cash to do it and above the security knowing that you do have the cash.

    1. Yeah, I think they might think that in some cases it’s in bad taste to talk about money. But they don’t have to talk about how much money they earn. But talking about how much money they SPEND, whether it’s 100% of their earnings or 1%, is still useful to readers, and not insulting.

  4. Haha I really like this. I agree… there aren’t enough honest budget posts out there. I think Audrey (That Backpacker) did a great one. It bothers me most when bloggers who write these posts are vague and make themselves sounds like miracle money savers and don’t provide the whole picture. At the end of the day, some people are just more fortunate than others…

    1. Yes, hers was one of the more straightforward posts I’ve seen. Same thing with a recent post from Be My Travel Muse. In both cases they were a combination of “no, I’m not rich” followed by “but I DID have tens of thousands of dollars saved up.” It’s much more helpful when they say how much they’re spending, since that’s a tangible figure aspiring travelers can work toward, as well as a clearcut rejection of them being wealthy.

  5. Okay thank you for writing this… I completely have to agree with everything you’ve wrote. Myself, I know that I do not make enough money to save up 20 grand for a year of travelling, so I will be working during my entire time abroad, but often times I read travel blog posts that say they’ve saved x amount of money in x amount of months & I think to myself, I don’t even make that amount in that time frame, how in the hell would I be able to save it let alone actually live during that time?! I am of course saving my ass off going without, but that’s only part of the equation… Great honesty here. x

    1. I’ve seen a few “I saved this much in this many months” posts, and it sounds amazing and everyone wants to know how they did it, but then it says “I had a job that paid $50,000 per year and didn’t spend like an idiot.” It’s not insightful, and for many people it’s simply not applicable, especially if they only get paid half as much. I don’t think it’s their fault though. Sometimes they write those posts simply to be straightforward about their situation, rather than brag, so people realize they’re not wealthy, but then it becomes their most shared post because the title is so snazzy.

  6. Awesome post! I totally agree with you! On the other hand, I traveled often and to exotic locations during my student years and my peers used to ask me the same question: they NEEDED to know why I could travel that extensively and they couldn’t. Especially since they had wealthier parents then mine, giving a big pile of cash every week, while I got nothing. And that’s where those logical answers come in: “I work during the weekends”, “I only have 2 outfits and they are worn down”, “I hardly go out”, “I don’t waste my money on cigarettes”- coz ‘everyone’ used to smoke at that time in Europe :)
    So I guess it depends who you are talking to… People earning the same or more than you VS people earning way less, like you stated. It’s a great topic to think about, thanks for that!

    1. Yeah, some people really do need to hear the “quit buying fancy stuff” answer. The idea of spending thousands of dollars on a purse makes me sad.

  7. The reason why you have a lot of these “how to save money” posts is because it’s really good for SEO. Very few of them offer truly novel advice. Many of the people who do travel long term either do travel hacking, or get sponsored trips/sponsorships for the long haul.

  8. I liked this post and agreed with a lot of it, BUT, I am one of those people who gives vague answers about who I afford to travel frankly because I think it’s often a silly question.

    But the simple answer to how I afford to travel is this: I work. I save. I travel where the money can take me. There’s no great secret and I feel like people asking me how I make it work are hoping there’s some magical bit of wisdom I’m keeping from them.

    I’m currently travelling for 6 months, which I saved for while working for minimum wage in the UK for 13 months. I wasn’t living at home – I was on a working holiday visa and travelled a bit during those 13 months too. I also have a mortgage and bills back in Australia so I’m not exactly footloose and fancy free when it comes to finances.

    So there’s no money tree, no high-paying job, no parents paying the way. Just working and saving (and saving extra for my house). Usually no one likes hearing that because it’s something they could be doing, but they just aren’t.

    1. That’s exactly what the answers should look like. Not a magic bullet, but just a very simple explanation of what you did to earn, and what you did to save, to dispel the myth that people must be infinitely rich to travel. I think it’s sometimes fine to be vague about earnings, since it’s a touchy subject, but saying “I worked this many months and got paid this much and spend a lot less than that” is helpful to people who simply need to make travel a priority.

  9. Great post! My problem with the sort of articles that you mentions is that they don’t apply to me. If you’re 30+ years old and have been working for several years, yeah you probably have something saved up to travel on. But what about people like me who have just graduated, have very little saved, and loans. Where’s the cheap travel guide for people like me?

    1. Good point. That’s why it’s a little annoying to see middle-aged people with middle-class incomes talking about how they can afford to travel. They have money, duh. And again, in some cases that’s exactly what certain people need to hear, but for the recent college grads with zero savings and awful job prospects, it’s useless. The only solutions in those situations are working a lot and maybe living with parents, or working while traveling, which is why teaching English abroad is such a popular option.

    2. This is why I believe in paying it forward in terms of travel. When my older sister was living in Germany and I was a poor college student, she flew me to Europe and took care of pretty much every expense imaginable. She got a great traveling buddy, and I got to experience things far beyond what my wallet could handle.

      Fast forward 8 years later, and I now have a great paying job with 30 days of vacation a year. I am more than willing to pick up the tab for friends (many of them unemployed/poor graduate students). This spring, my brother’s coming to Hawaii on me, my best friend is coming to Patagonia (although she’s paying for her own flight), and my little sister is probably going to accompany me to Africa over Christmas to visit her friend whose volunteering for two years over there.

      Young people can often benefit the most from travel (gain some perspective, get out of the American-centric viewpoint, etc.), but they are the least likely to be able to have the means to do it. Pay it forward, folks!

      1. I thoroughly agree. While there’s certainly a limit to how much of a free ride is appropriate, I think the appalling cost of college and crushing uselessness of minimum wage can push so many things out of reach of young people that in many cases, a free trip is the only trip they might be able to take.

  10. It makes more sense to be honest, specially if you give advice. That’s why people read the article in the first place. It might be out of curiosity, some might only want to dream about the possibility to travel, but some might take your word and plan their own trip. For these, honesty is most important, as they might reply in part on the advice that you give them.

  11. Like most anything – once you truly to commit to it – you will find a way. Why is weight loss a mega million dollar industry when ‘eat well and exercise’ is so simple? It’s not easy!! But, it’s simple. It’s about the choices we make and how we prioritize things in life.

    1. Thanks. I’m surprised I don’t see this sort of thing more often. I think it has to do with travelers constantly hearing nonsense about how rich they are, so they react by saying no, of course not, rather than displaying their bank statements and net worth. Which makes sense, of course…

  12. This is awesome!! When I was saving up to move abroad, I regularly posted screenshots of my Excel spreadsheets I was using that showed exactly how much was coming in from where (my main job, my second job, my online business, selling things on Craigslist, etc.) and another column of all the expenses I knew I would need to cover for moving out of the country and settling into a new one before I could start work here. I told people how much I made at my jobs, how much I took home, and all that kind of stuff. How are people supposed to know how you save $20,000 if you don’t tell them how you did it?

    1. Yeah, it remains a mystery otherwise. I can understand how some people don’t want to talk about money, and that’s fair, but occasionally they’ll sort of thrown it in someone’s face. Occasionally deservedly so, but sometimes it’s more retaliatory than helpful. Telling people exactly what it takes is usually helpful and inspirational at the same time.

      1. It’s all about choices. I have nieces and nephews that decided to have kids and threw away any chance of being able to save money to do anything but take care of the constant needs of their children. I’m not judging or bashing, I’m just stating a fact. People do this all of the time and then when frustrated they look at those that made different choices which landed them into good paying jobs and more lofty opportunities. People need to really understand the consequences of their actions and choices. Not just for travel, but for any dream that you long for.

        1. Agree 100%.

          Choices. It’s all about priorities and choices.

          One choice many people do not even recognize they are making is the small, daily or weekly expenses. A $5 latte, times every day, times ten years, is thousands of dollars. The same with a weekly car wash, fancy hair cuts instead of the cheap places, eating out for lunch instead of bringing one from home, restaurants in general, driving a gas guzzler. And so on.

          Many, many people are blind to these insidious, daily indulgences and how they add up when multiplied over time. If these expenses were saved and invested over a period of several years instead of being pissed away, could result in plenty of money for a gap year.

  13. Great timing as I am just working on my next posts on “How to afford to travel Asia in 365 days” and “How to save up to $10.000 per year in China working as an English teacher”. Basically, not everyone talks about the money which is pretty obvious but annoying at the same time. We often laugh at those who say that they travel on the cheap and left their country with no money and possessions (not including their life savings of few thousands of $ LOL) and inspire people to quit their jobs as well to travel the world. As long as you can work on your travels, you shouldn’t worry about it :)

    1. Yeah, it’s always a little weird when I see all these “don’t worry about money, just travel!” sorts of things. I hope nobody follows that advice, because it’s obviously terrible. “Research costs thoroughly, build up a healthy savings, and have a plan to make money during the trip or immediately afterward so you don’t get stuck with nothing” is obviously the correct answer, but I rarely see it.

      1. Researching costs in each country is a biggie (I found Budget Your Trip invaluable). Our trip has been expensive by RTW standards, since we wanted to spend a lot of time in Europe and America rather than just travel for travel’s sake in cheaper countries (we did start off in SE Asia though, which worked well as we didn’t have to penny pinch as we eased into travel, and we didn’t have the chance to get used to good/western-standard transport!).

        I must admit I took a bit of a leap of faith with travelling as I was a little short of our $ goal before we left, but I also was making some income online (freelancing and through the blog) so I was confident I could earn *some* money on the road.

        1. Yes, online stuff is incredibly helpful. It’s not particularly easy, but that’s what most long-term travelers end up doing, since it’s either that, or go back to job land. And although I do see people who explain that they’re working while they travel (which is helpful advice), “OMG it’s so easy!” is still a fairly common refrain.

      2. I did a 10,000 mile motorcycle trip with no savings and nothing but a plan to turn it into a book to pay for the trip. I camped and stayed with friends, ate cheap and minimized costs but still ended up with nearly $10k credit card debt and no job at the end of the trip (bike repairs, insurance and post trip pre-job living expenses). After a few months I got a few part time jobs (nothing was available in my field and nobody wanted to hire someone with my education for minimum wage jobs because I was ove qualified). It took 10 years to get debt free. There was only local travel during that decade.

  14. So true! Mate, I love your rants and you’re right! I used to be vague too, as it’s not easy to tell someone you’ve had a job that paid shitloads of dosh. But I’ve finally learned to explain to people how to save money and how to travel on the cheap. Still, some people want to have it all: dinners in Mayfair, party every weekend AND travel. THAT is just for the trust fund kids…

    1. My favorite part of all this is how my rants are far more popular than anything else I do. Now I know what my fans want! And yes, money issues are sensitive, so I try to be respectful of people who don’t want to be too open about it, but I also respect the people who issue clear statements of exactly what they did, so people can think about what they can do too.

  15. Great post. I’d like to think I was open in my posts about how I saved for my trip without coming off as obnoxious. I’m in my 30s and had a decent job before I left but I also had a mortgage and student loans to figure out how to deal with. And I for one didn’t really realize how inexpensive long term travel could be until I started reading other blogs. I actually had more money in the bank 5 years before I left on my trip than I did when I finally left , but at that time my idea of budget travel was finding a hotel for less than $100 a night and I thought I was too old for hostels so I didn’t think what I had then was enough.

    1. Yeah, I sort of take for granted that hostels exist and are usually cheaper than mid-range hotels, but I forget that this isn’t universal knowledge. Sometimes I also have to tell people that hostels have private rooms too, since they assume it’s all dorms and thus couples get no alone time, or that they have all sorts of amenities, like free Wi-Fi and all that. I would think word would have gotten out by now, but some people just haven’t gotten that sort of exposure.

  16. I loved this post. Also most of these posts are geared towards Americans/Europeans living long-term in Asian countries. I doubt, being Indian and earning in INR, I would ever be able to save enough to leave it all behind for a few years and travel indefinitely. I would always have to budget and plan and save and then take off for a few weeks and repeat the cycle again.

    1. Yes, it’s definitely different for people living in different economies. I think that’s why so many Australians travel, as they have a strong minimum wage compared to many other countries. You might want to take a look at The Shooting Star, which is a travel blog written by an Indian girl. I’m not sure what her job situation was, but it might at least be encouraging to read. Building up online income is also a good way to travel, since you can work while on the road. But it’s generally a long process rather than an easy fix.

  17. I have read enough of these type of posts and can tell you how they do it. This mostly applies to travelers in the early and mid 20’s. They live with their parents and don’t have the rent/mortgage expenses that most of us have. (How much hate am I going to get from this statement?)

    When you are older and have larger expenses it becomes more difficult to save money so quickly.

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