Updated: Jan 5, 2019
5th time is the charm right? I've been working towards full-time travel for a long time. 5 years ago, I took my first international trip to visit Western Europe and Central America. I knew from that moment on that I wanted to travel freely as long as I could afford it. In Fall 2018, I took a leap of faith and backpacked through Europe for 5 months. How did I do it? I used 5 key rules to help me travel for 5 months in Europe with just $5,000 in my pocket.
You may be wondering how a girl like me was able to travel the world for 5 months and only spend $5,000? It's no mystery, it's all about strategy. I've spent many years of my life traveling but never was I able to go full-time, ditch my job and become a digital nomad. There's no secret to this sauce. It's all about how I positioned my life to put travel at the forefront. I'll tell you how I did it and at the end, I have a challenge for you! A challenge that will help you plan your next travel getaway.
"I understood the great privilege that carrying an American passport afforded me and from that moment forward, I never took it for granted."
How It all Started
I had my first international travel experience in 2014 when I was 20 years old. Prior to that, I met a friend in my freshman year of college that changed my life. He was a guy from Holland who lived in the same dorm as me. We formed a great friendship. However due to various reasons in his life, he had to leave the college and go back to the Netherlands. I was crushed. In the summer of 2014, I asked if I could visit him in the Netherlands and trip number one ensued. I stayed in the Netherlands for an entire month and did a road trip from the Netherlands to Italy with pitstops in Germany and Austria. This was my first time seeing a country outside of the United States. I was in culture shock and in love.
After my great Euro trip, I took a three week journey to Nicaragua. I joined a social and environmental justice program at my university which allowed my fellow cohort mates and I to do service work in Nicaragua. Believe me, I'm not rich. I received a scholarship to go on this trip; a mere $1,000 for three weeks in a foreign nation with food, housing and transportation provided. I spent three weeks critically analyzing the social and environmental issues that plagued Nicaragua and did dozens of hours of service working alongside local Nicaraguans. I began to understand how the amenities and luxuries found in Europe were directly correlated with the deficits in Nicaragua and other nations in the world. Nicaragua broke my heart and built me back up again.
To travel to Europe and Nicaragua in one summer did something strange to me. I directly saw how the richest people in the world greatly benefited from the natural resources, goods and services found in the poorest parts of the world. I was shook. It was in 2014 that my naive existence and belief that the world was a place full of justice, access, and freedom came to an end. I understood the great privilege that carrying an American passport afforded me and from that moment forward, I never took it for granted. Since then, I have dedicated much of my personal, financial, and educational goals towards continuing to travel and seeing the world beyond the American lens. I wanted to see the world with my own eyes for what it was. No filter.
5 Rules That Helped Me Save $5,000 and Travel to Europe for 5 Months
In order to travel the world in the way that I wanted, I made a strategic set of life decisions that enabled me to pick up and leave when I had the right amount of money.
Here are the rules I followed:
I got my financial sh*t together
I lived below my means
I stopped paying for things that held me back
I invested in a digital nomad lifestyle
I found free housing wherever I went
These rules are key. They worked for me and I know they work for others. If you follow these rules, you can most definitely travel for months at a time on a shoestring budget.
Rule #1: I got my financial sh*t together
Your finances are by far the most important part of traveling the world. If you don't have money, you're not going anywhere. That's why the richest people in the world, the people who run major companies and have literally no free time, are still able to travel. Money makes the world go round and whether we like it or not, money is necessary to get going and start jet-setting on this beautiful planet of ours.
In 2015, I got my financial sh*t together. I graduated from college with a B.A. in Geography and soon after, I landed an internship in Florida. The internship itself was very fun, however, it didn't pay me enough. I was getting paid $500 a month and my rent was $500 a month. Needless to say, rice and beans were my jam that Fall and begging my mom for money to survive was a task I did regularly. It was a humiliating experience for me. Not only was I prevented from traveling, I couldn't afford even the most basic necessities. In my eyes, I was going nowhere fast.
In late 2015, I got a tip from a kind stranger that the local college in St. Petersburg, FL was hiring for a Multicultural Affairs staff person. At that time, I thought of myself as very social justice-minded and strong in my leadership abilities. I applied for the job and in February 2016, I got it. For 2 years, I managed the Office of Multicultural Affairs (alongside various staff members and student workers). It was the job that changed my finances.
For the first time since I arrived in Florida, I was able to pay my bills, put away a great deal for savings and still manage to have hundreds of dollars a month in "fun" money. That "fun" money ended up being my travel fund which enabled me to go to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Canada, Mexico and various places in the United States with relative ease and comfort. This is all about living below your means and putting away a robust amount of money (which I'll explain more about in a later section).
The nugget of wisdom here is that I put away a ton of my money (10-20% into savings and whatever was left over after bills into my travel fund) in order to make sure my financial house was in order and that I could travel the world. If you are in a job and you are paying more than half of your income to pay for your basic necessities (rent, utilities, loans, etc.) then you need to upgrade to a higher paying job or lower the cost of your basic necessities. The key to traveling the world with ease, comfort, and level head, is to have you financial sh*t together and be putting away robust amounts of money into not only your savings but also your travel fund.
Rule #2: Live Below Your Means
This is an important rule. As mentioned above, living below my means and dedicating 50% or less of my income towards basic necessities like rent, utilities and loans, changed the game for me. But what if you're in a job that doesn't pay that much? Adjust your housing situation. In a later section, I'll talk about how I found free or extremely affordable housing everywhere I went.
To live below your means is to be able to pay for your basic necessities and have a decent amount of money left over. To demonstrate my point, I'm going to be transparent about my cost of living in St. Petersburg, FL at the time when I had my full-time 9-5 job. Here was the breakdown of my budget:
Income: $32,000 a year (after taxes) or $2,800 a month
Internet: $0/month (free with my apartment complex)
Phone: $0/month (family plan which my family was happy to pay for)
Entertainment: $40/month (included yoga, movies, random activities)
Eating out: $100/month ($25/week)
Savings: $280/month (10% of my income)
Travel fund: ANYTHING LEFT OVER
When you do the math, I ended up being able to save $1,200 a month and put that away into my travel fund. What?! That's amazing, right? My basic necessities (rent, utilities, and food) cost me $1,180 a month which was about 42% of my monthly income. Remember my 50% rule? Never allow your basic necessities to be more than 50% of what you earn.
The luxury items on my list (internet, phone, entertainment and eating out) were kept to the bare minimum or not paid for at all. I was able to save on entertainment by going to five dollar yoga once or twice a week and the occasional movie once a month. I was also able to save money on eating out by only going out once or twice a week and eating meals that cost no more than $10. Yes, that meant I had to cook at home for the vast majority of my meals and I did. I actually became a better, more creative and cost-effective cook after that.
With my savings line item, I recommend saving anywhere between 10-20% of your income. Some months I was feeling particularly rich and decided to put 20% of my income into my savings. For most months, I was feeling particularly travel hungry and decided to keep it at the bare minimum of 10%. As long as you keep your financial house is in order and you put away SOME money, that's all that matters.
Notice, there's no budget for cosmetics or shopping. That's because I rarely ever wear makeup and I only shop when I really need something. I do not go out and buy cosmetics and new clothes every month. In my opinion, it's a waste of money and only pulls money further away from your travel fund. You want to travel right? Well, then you have to make sacrifices. For me, buying new and most certainly disposable items were a waste of my time and money. My bigger goal was to travel so I prioritized that.
At the end of any given month, my travel fund would get somewhere around $1,000 a month. In 5 months, I managed to save $5,000. It was that easy.
Rule #3: Stop Paying For Things That Hold You Back
Hear me out. We all love Netflix, our spider plant in the window and Fluffy the Cat but these things hold you back from being able to travel for long periods of time. Here's why.
Sometime in 2017, I stopped paying for anything that was going to hold me back and make me stay in a particular place for a particular amount of time. Netflix, gym memberships, subscription boxes made me happy for a period of time but when I look at how much money they took from my bank account and how much time I spent enjoying them, I quickly realized something wasn't adding up. At some point, I got wise and started asking friends if they would be willing to share their Netflix log-in information so I could enjoy Netflix (literally once a month) when I had free time. Most of my friends were totally open to it because me logging into Netflix and binge watching Ru Paul's Drag Race for a week didn't cost them any more money and it was helping out a friend that they saw had some serious financial and travel goals. I don't care what anyone says, real friends let you use their Netflix accounts, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
I also had to let go of things that depend on me to survive like plants and animals. When it comes to plants, I don't have a green thumb anyway. If you saw my succulents, you would gasp. I can barely keep anything alive these days. Maybe that's a lack of skill, a fault on my character or just a disinterest in having to take care of small and vulnerable things.
The same goes for animals. I love animals. Dogs, cats, fish, birds. You name it, I love it. However, having animals can be very expensive, time consuming and they require you to be in a particular place at a particular time. Animals that need constant attention do not mix well with world travel. Unless you're well off financially and can afford to take Spike the Dog with you on adventures, it's probably best to not have a pet when travel is on your mind. Don't get me wrong, for short trips (1 week or less), having a pet is fine. You can ask a neighbor, friend, partner or parent to feed your animals and make sure they're okay. However, for trips like mine where you travel for months at a time, having an animal is not a good idea. For me, I simply refrained from owning one. I decided not to get all attached to an animal that I would soon have to give up in order to travel. Instead, I got my cute cuddly animal fill from visiting my loved ones, offering to walk their dogs with them or come over to play with their kitten. There's so many animals in the world. Chances are you have a friend that would absolutely love to let you hang out with their cat once a week.
Rule #4: Start A Digital Nomad Lifestyle
There's a lot to do in order to start a digital nomad lifestyle. Some of which require you to make drastic changes in life like where you're employed and where you live. Others require you to make small changes in your life like what laptop you use and how much "stuff" you have to lug around.
Let's start with the big changes. If you want to start a digital nomad lifestyle, you will need a job that can pay you money while you're traveling or a job that you can do literally anywhere in the world. Great professions that are digital nomad friendly include:
Some types of Entrepreneurs
Blogger/Social Media Influencer
Call Center Jobs
Customer Service Representatives
Videographer and Photographers
International Business Professionals
Creatives (visual artists, dancers, writers, singers, etc.)
Basically any job that can be done from a laptop
If you have skills in any of these areas, I highly recommend investing in those career paths. For me, I chose the accounting/bookkeeping, entrepreneur, blogger, and creative route.
In August 2018, I quit my job at the college and decided to invest heavily into my entrepreneurial and creative endeavors. These jobs allowed me to be my own boss, make my own goals, create my own money, and build my own future as well as travel on my own terms. If that's not the ultimate freedom, I don't know what is. If you're interested in how I make money on my own and my entrepreneurial endeavors, be sure to visit the Entrepreneur section of my blog or visit my vegan blog, Afro Feminista Vegan.
The smaller changes you need to make in order to take on the digital nomad life include changing some of your electronics and reducing the amount of "stuff" you have. As far as electronics go, I had to invest in a good sustainable laptop that would allow me to video chat, get on the internet efficiently and help me to make money. I was fortunate enough to have people who believed in my work when I was struggling to make ends meet. I had a friend loan me $2,000 so I could invest in a new laptop and other electronic items necessary for my work. I was able to buy my first professional laptop this year! It's an ideal travel companion for a couple of reasons. A reliable laptop is crucial for digital nomads. You want something that's light, works fast and can allow you to do your job without any kinks or hiccups. It has made my job as an entrepreneur, bookkeeper, freelancer, and creative so much easier.
With the upgrade in electronics, you'll also need to reduce the amount of stuff you carry with you. I'm talking about furniture, clothes, shoes, accessories, and other things that are just taking up space. When I quit my job in August 2018, I had to simultaneously move out of my studio apartment in St. Petersburg, FL. I sold about 90% of my stuff and only kept what I truly needed or what felt irreplaceable to me. I took the remaining 10% of my stuff, brought it to my parent's house in Denver and left it. Of that 10% of stuff, I took 5%, put it into a big traveller's bag and never looked back. As I write this article, I am traveling with a small fraction of the stuff I own and I've never felt freer. To travel for months on end, you need to pack light. You will likely accumulate stuff as you go to different places. My recommendation to you is to pack whatever you can fit on your back and leave the rest. That's what I did and it was one of the best decisions I've made.
Rule #5: Find Free Housing Wherever You Are
Some of the most expensive parts of traveling are the costs of transportation and accommodations. Flights can go up and down in price but accommodations usually stay pretty consistent wherever you go. When people think about travel, they imagine themselves at these luxurious 5-star resorts and completely blowing their money on all sorts of tourist trap entertainment schemes. Listen, that's not a sustainable way to travel unless you're rich or you wish to do short-term travel. We need to think about this from a more creative lens. Perhaps a lens that will be uncomfortable at first but will open you up to the best people and places the world has to offer.
I chose to find my accommodations in the most affordable places. I do not go to hotels, Airbnb's and hostels because they can really add up and cause you to cut your trip short. I recommend creative housing solutions like Workaway.com or Couchsurfing.com. To the untrustworthy traveler, these sights can seem like really bad ideas. When people hear you have the opportunity to stay with strangers in exchange for quality time or work, people may think you're crazy. Hear me out. Both of these sites are excellent ways to cut the cost of traveling by significant margins. Both Workaway and Couchsurfing allow travelers to connect with someone they don't know somewhere in the world and offer something of value for accommodations.
Workaway is more of a long-term solution where you can stay for 2 weeks or more in a place in exchange for working or volunteering. Workaway helped me stay in Russia for 3 weeks. I was basically an au pair where I helped a Russian family cook, clean, and teach their children English in exchange for a private room in their apartment. Honestly, it was one my fondest memories of 2018. The family was fantastic, they were located in a prime part of St. Petersburg and I was able to take cheap public transport to many parts of the city. I have absolutely no regrets and would definitely do it again.
Couchsurfing is more of a short-term solution. Most hosts on Couchsurfing are open to having you stay with them for up to two weeks. This is a great solution for someone who doesn't have a whole lot of time to travel but wants to see the most of a place, stay with a local and save a whole lot of money in return. I have couchsurfed everywhere from Finland to Mexico and it is oh so fun. My favorite memory was couchsurfing in Merida, Mexico. My host was a local who happened to be very knowledgable about the history of the Yucatan Peninsula and the peoples who lived there for centuries. As an anthropology nerd, I was eating up everything he had to tell me about the local indigenous history in the area. He also showed me some wonderful places to eat, drink and I even met some international travelers that I consider to be close friends of mine to this day.
Another option is to stay with friends and family. The more you travel, the more friends you make. The more friends you make, the more affordable housing you can find. That's been the case for me. Remember my friend from the Netherlands that I mentioned earlier? Well I'm currently writing this article from his flat in The Hague. I haven't had to pay for housing in three months because I'm staying with people I know who love me and are delighted to have me stay with them for months at a time if it means they can be closer to me and make great memories. Remember, real friends let you stay with them in their houses and hook you up with their Netflix log-in info.
You Can Do This, Now Here's Your Challenge.
With these five rules, you too can afford an incredible travel experience. The days when travel would cost an arm and a leg is over. There are so many incredible options for you to travel for months on end with a few thousand dollars in your pocket. If I did it on a $32,000 a year salary, then you can too!
Now, here is my challenge to you. This year, I want you to think of three places in the world that you would like to visit. Of those three places, think of one that you can visit this year. Research what activities and places you would like to visit or do in that location and create a faux budget. Do you want to go to Thailand? How much would it cost to spend one week in Thailand? Spend time researching your ideal accommodations, activities, places to see etc. Build out a hypothetical budget then figure out how much you need to put away every month in order to be able to afford your one week trip to Thailand. This is the formula that helped me go to so many of the world's most beautiful places. You can do this. I know you can.
Good luck and have fun. Don't forget to please comment below and tell me about your most recent adventure traveling abroad!