How I Went from Broke New Yorker to World Traveler: I saved $20,000 in less than a year to quit my job and travel.
I knew I wanted to travel long-term for years but I was too scared and too comfortable. Up until 2017, I spent the last five years living in my dream city–NYC. As a manager at a tech company I was earning a solid income, and traveling every few weeks–I’d spend two weeks in Dublin four times a year, and was going to conferences and leadership seminars in places like Barcelona and Las Vegas. I’d even relocated to Sydney for 6 months when my employer opened an office there. I loved the company’s values, worked with some wickedly smart people, and lots of my colleagues were (and still are) my friends.
But I’d worked at the same place for seven years and wanted to know what else was out there. The longer I worked there, the more I felt like my personal life was taking a backseat. And I wanted to travel freely–without the pressure of feeling like I had to cram a whole country into a one-week trip or between work events. I wanted to get know other cities the way I know NYC (pizza rat and all). And I wanted to see if I could make it as a digital nomad.
I knew I wanted to travel, but for a long time I didn’t know where to start. And I see this from a lot of others in solo travel forums and Facebook groups: ‘I want to travel but I don’t know how to save’; ‘I’m afraid of what others will think if I quit my job to travel’; ‘Will I have a hard time getting hired again if I take a career break?’; ‘Am I crazy for wanting to do something so risky?’
I’m here to tell you: if you’re thinking about quitting your corporate job to travel, you can do it if you prioritize it.
How I Reprioritized to Quit My Corporate Job and Travel
In October 2016 there were big changes in my personal life and at work: my dad became seriously ill, and a change of direction at work had me worrying I was going to lose my job (and my team’s).
Here I was, 29 years old and managing my dad’s medical care and money, and trying to build a new strategy for my team to make sure they still had jobs in the near future. There’s nothing that trains you for that kind of experience. I felt like I was going to lose my mind if I didn’t have something massive to look forward to and work towards, so during a weekend trip to visit family in Vermont, I made a plan to stop thinking about it and make it happen.
My goal? Save $18,250–in less than a year.
Why $18,250? $50 x 365 = $18,250. I figured, based on the Backpacker Index, that I could live on $50 per day at most of the places I wanted to see, and I wanted to give myself a year to travel.
I aimed for a time that made the most sense to make a clean break at work, where I wouldn’t burn bridges and could set my team up well for the change. The last thing I wanted to do was peace-out and leave my team’s job security up in the air–I felt a real parental responsibility towards them and making sure everyone else was taken care of before I left.
Changing my spending habits and paying off debt.
Reaching this goal meant taking an honest look at my personal finances and spending habits. As an almost-30-year-old, I was average in terms of my finances. By that, I mean most of my paycheck was gone right after payday, and I probably couldn’t have told you where it went it either. I was spending way too much of my income on rent, and my only savings were my tiny, sad retirement fund. I’m extremely fortunate to have parents who paid for my undergraduate studies, but I had racked up a stupid amount of personal debt on credit cards.
Here’s how I did it:
I made a commitment to myself and paid off my credit card debt. I’d been carrying around nearly ten grand in credit card debt since the 6 months I lived in Sydney in 2013 and 2014 for work; I was 25 at the time and spending most of my weekends partying or meeting up with friends in Melbourne, and told myself I’d be able to pay it off easily later. I didn’t drink until I was 23 so I was getting it alllll out of my system in one go. Twenty-five-year-old me was so young. When I finally took a hard look at my credit card and realized how long it would take to pay it off with minimum payments, and how much interest that meant I was going to pay, I asked a family member for a loan
That family member wasn’t in a place to spot me at the time (a blessing in disguise), and since I had no other option, I got my shit together and hurled cash at it. It was painful to choose throwing money at my credit card balance over a trip to somewhere new, or something I could see or touch (or eat), but it was less painful than paying interest on top of it. In six months I got rid of the burden I had created for myself, and closed out all but my emergency credit card account.
Downsize your living expenses. You’ll be amazed at how much you can do without.
I significantly downsized my apartment and my rent. I moved from my $1,700/mo one-bedroom apartment in the Upper East Side to a bedroom in a two-bedroom unit in Gowanus, Brooklyn, for $1150/mo–my first time living with a roommate since college. Between a raise at work and decrease in expenses, this lowered my housing expense from almost 50% of my income to 25%. I was finally able to quit the I’ll-save-next-month mentality that was leading me to spend more and more of my paycheck on credit card interest, and it fueled my motivation to see my checking account increasing every month.
As a general personal finance best practice, you should spend no more than 25-33% of your income on housing.
I stopped buying clothes.
This was hard. I was living in epicenter of the hipster-luxe scene that is Brooklyn, where every kombucha-toting person at the grocery store looks like they’ve just shot the cover of Kinfolk Magazine (I do like a kombucha). There is so much pressure as a woman living in New York, where it seems like everyone is gorgeous and exceptionally stylish, to feel like you have keep up and dress for others.
It was hard, but it sucked less than I thought it would. I learned to stop dressing for other people, and I defined my own personal style in the process. If I was hitting my savings goal, it didn’t matter to me where my clothes were from or how new they were, and I started to realize how much less you can live with if you just try to be more conscious about what you actually use. I stopped donating half a paycheck to ASOS and Revolve every month, and I learned that no one’s going to call you out for wearing the same piece on heavy rotation–and if they do, they’re probably a dick, anyway. You don’t have to have a new dress for every party or night out.
Need inspiration? I loved this TED Talk by Jennifer L. Scott — ‘The Ten-Item Wardrobe’.
I cut back on my monthly expenses. It’s amazing how much money you can waste by telling yourself you’ll cancel that multi-device Netflix subscription later, or by making purchases with plastic (debit cards included). There’s research that shows you feel pain when you part with your cash. I tracked everything I spent.
I saved 50% of my income. Between my goal and everything else going on at the time, my social life pretty much tanked, but by the end of July 2017 I had exceeded my savings goal by almost $4,000.
I didn’t sacrifice my support base. The big expense I kept–that a lot of people might have said I could do without–was my gym membership (and my sanity); I belonged to an amazing powerlifting community that was a large source of the support I needed to stick to my goals.
I sought support from friends, family, and podcasts. I’m lucky that my family and friends were totally supportive. If your family and friends don’t support your decision, find your community online–on Reddit or Facebook; There’s a Facebook group for everything.
In addition to spending time creeping posts in Facebook solo female traveller groups for inspiration, I became obsessed with Dave Ramsey’s personal finance podcast, which gave me the money motivation I needed to save as much as I could. Dave teaches a ‘baby step’, cash budgeting program and breaks down financial wellness for everyone, no matter what their income or circumstances. His program is designed to boost your motivation to pay off debts by tackling them from smallest to largest. The theory is that by paying off just one, instead of putting money towards several, you’re energized to pay off the others. When I was feeling unmotivated, listening to Dave’s program, and the listeners who call in with stories of how they paid off houses, education, and personal debt, gave me the energy to stick it out (and pass on fancy morning coffees).
A friend introduced me to a pair of bloggers called The Minimalists. These guys have amazing stories about realigning their lives with their priorities and letting go of ‘things’, and they share how to do this in their podcast. They are hardcore–like, let go of almost all the things. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go Spartan, but I did want to see if it was as difficult to part with some of the things I owned as I imagined. By the time I was ready to leave, I had sold all my furniture (and anything else I could), donated most of my already small wardrobe, gave a bunch of things to friends, and packed everything I planned to keep into a little more than two suitcases (which are now stored by my fantastic family and friends). Looking back, it’s crazy what you think you might want or need to keep for the future–when I actually took a look at what I kept, I realized hadn’t even thought of half of it while I was away.
My Monthly Budget:
- Rent: $1,150
- Utilities: $55-75
- Phone: $90
- Spotify: $12 (must-have for subway commuters)
- Gym: $275
- Misc (co-pays, toiletries, gym gear + competition fees, etc.): $50-200
- Food: $300-500 – it costs a lot to eat in NYC (especially if you’re an athlete).
- ‘Fun’ (birthday gifts, trips to see family, movie tickets, date money, etc.): $0-$300 (this got smaller and smaller towards the end)
- Monthly net income: $4600
- Total monthly expenses: $1932-$2602
- Total potential monthly savings: $2,668-$1,998
Some months were better than others; Family emergencies and unexpected expenses came up, but I focused on my goal and staying positive and saving everything I could.
You don’t have to have a huge budget to travel long-term. There are great resources like couchsurfing.com and Hostelworld to make any budget work, and with the increasing popularity of Airbnb, it’s even easier for travelers to find budget-friendly accommodations–you can even get free stays by housesitting or WOOFing.
Don’t think you need twenty grand saved up to change directions–start small and think about saving for your flight! Keep an eye out for my upcoming post on how you can make money while traveling, too.