Adjusting to Life On a Budget

The biggest misconception that people have about our travels is that we are vacationing, while in reality, we are traveling. It’s a lifestyle, not a break from life.

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By choosing to live this way, we’ve had to severely alter our routines. Before we started our career break journey, our vacations took us to glamorous cities in Europe, and during this week away from work and the routine, we would let ourselves indulge. We weren’t over the top and never spent more than we had, but pricey waterfront hotels, wallet-robbing rooftop cocktails, and exorbitant tickets to lookout points, boat rides, or whatever grabbed our fancy is how we vacationed.

The difference between vacation and long-term travel

The life of long-term travel is almost the exact opposite of that. It’s about researching, planning, and if we are going to have any chance of traveling long term, it’s about budgeting.

Our previous travels served as the perfect warm up in the researching and planning department, but we’ve never tried to keep a strict budget, and certainly not a detailed one. For our career break trip around the world, we’ve set our spending to an ambitious $100 per day…total…for both of us…combined.

This includes accommodations, food, drinks, local transportation, and any miscellaneous items that pop up. We count every dollar, peso, and franc that leaves our wallets and document the amount in a spreadsheet full of formulas. This, my friends, is a huge adjustment to our lifestyle.

Before we left, back when we still had an income, we spent money freely. We’ve never been drawn to materialistic things, but we’ve always been partial to the local, trendy restaurant and bar scene. Sure, we often hit happy hours and rarely went out during the work week, but when we did go out, we seldom factored in cost.

We were frugal in so many other areas of spending – I clipped coupons and drove a used Honda – that ending up with a hundred dollar Sunday Session bill was taken with a shrug of the shoulders and a shake of the head (How did we manage to do that again?!). We didn’t bat an eye at $30 weekday sushi lunches or the daily habit of an overpriced cup of Joe; it was simply our lifestyle. If we went back and calculated our spending before we left, even with our inexpensive apartment, the fact that we rarely went shopping and didn’t carry any outstanding balances on cars or credit cards, we would have, on average, still spent more than $100 per day.

Unfamiliar Territory

Only three months into our journey (and relying solely on our savings), we’ve had to completely shift gears, which has put us into unfamiliar territory. Adjusting to our new budget has us kicking old habits.

We can’t just swing into a seaside café and blindly order a bottle of wine. Now we look at the menu before we decide whether or not we can even afford to sit down. Actually, eating a meal in a restaurant has become practically non-existent. The few meals that we have had – less than 10 in the three months since we’ve been gone – were planned adventures in experiencing life as a local, and still, by most terms, budget options.

It isn’t just the dining experiences (or current lack thereof) that have been an adjustment; all frivolous spending has come to a halt, and we never spend on a whim. Before we even step foot in the grocery store we plan out each meal, make a complete list, and only buy what is necessary (chocolate is always necessary).

Recycling has taken on a whole new meaning as we refill our one bottle with tap water (we have a Steripen if water quality is in question). And if there is something we want to do or see, we calculate how the cost would impact our daily budget, research cheaper alternatives that would satisfy the same desire, and then modify our spending in other areas to weigh it out.

Assessing priorities

The most challenging part of this balancing act is ensuring that we are not sacrificing the experience for the budget; the journey is not a journey if we don’t allow ourselves to live it.

But the reality is that the two go hand-in-hand: Breaking the bank would force us to end our journey and get real jobs again (gasp!). Since the latter is pretty much a non-option for us at this point, we are focusing on getting more creative, and up to this point, we haven’t felt like we’ve missed out on anything. Rather, by altering our lifestyle and adhering to a budget, we’ve actually opened our eyes to new possibilities.

  • In Buenos Aires, watching tango is a must. The least expensive show option of $30 (although it did include a couple drinks) didn’t jive with our budget, so instead, we opted to watch couples dance in a square in San Telmo for free. 
  • We couldn’t pass on the balcony views from Icebergs Bar in Bondi Beach, but with a small draught beer costing nearly $10, we limited ourselves to just one…and sipped slowly. 
  • In Chile, I desperately wanted to take a winery tour, but the pricey tour packages would have thrown our budget for a loop. With a little research, we found an affordable option: A lesser-known (and much to our liking, less touristy) winery with small but beautiful grounds gave tours at a fraction of the price, and the local bus dropped us off at the front gate. 
  • And while it would have been impressive to walk across the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, the cost of this one activity alone would have eaten up a fifth of our total monthly budget, and besides, the stellar views from the pylon didn’t require climbing gear.

So while the adjustments were at first difficult, often uncomfortable and occasionally argument-inducing, in most cases we are finding an upside to our new found frugality.

  • We eat healthier, waste less food, and litter the earth with fewer water bottles. 
  • When we do decide to splurge and take a seat at a café, it isn’t just another drink in another café in a string of many that is likely to be forgotten; it’s more memorable. 
  • In years to come, when we look back on our travels, I highly doubt we’ll be commiserating over the fact that we skipped a ride to the top of the Sky Tower in Auckland or passed on the overpriced you-might-see-one whale watching tour in Moorea.

Because what we have done, what we will see, and what we are experiencing is worth keeping the budget in check…and us on our journey.

Simply put, we love to travel! Kris’s position at a major airline allowed him to travel all over the world (for free!), and Sarah’s first trip to Europe in 2000 awakened her travel taste buds. Jet-setting has been part of our relationship since we first started dating in 2004 – traveling extensively in America and throughout Europe. In April 2014 we decided to put our careers on hold, sell everything we owned, and travel full time. We are documenting our journey at Jet Setting Fools, and you can find us on social media: TwitterFacebook, and Instagram

Read more about budgeting for your career break trip:

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

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