Put That Back: On Saving Money for Travel

Isn’t it great how the moment you decide to take the first concrete step toward realizing a dream is also the moment that your brain tells you all the reasons why you’re going to fail at that dream, how dumb of a dream it was to begin with, and how you really shouldn’t embark on that dream path and should just stay on the couch and watch four more episodes of Stranger Things instead? Thanks, brain. Real helpful.

Now that I have decided to make long-term travel a part of my life, my brain has been working overtime to convince me that this is just another passing whim, one that I cannot possibly hope to achieve; much like the time I decided to start sewing all my own clothing, or when I vowed to eat only salad for lunch everyday from then until the day I died (presumably from boredom after sitting down to my 500th consecutive lunch salad). In any case, I’ve been fighting the good fight, trying to convince my brain that this travel dream is worthwhile and achievable, and the other day I came across some solid evidence that strengthened my case. 

Exhibit A:

(written on December 3, 2015)

If you were to ask me at any given moment what I’m thinking, chances are the answer would fall into one of only four categories: What I’m Going to Eat Next, Random Simpsons Quotes, Boys, and Mild Social Anxiety (aka Please Don’t Ask Me What I’m Thinking). Lately though, I’ve noticed that two other thought categories have claimed substantial real estate in my brain space. Namely: I Really Want to Travel and Wow, You Suck with Money.
These thoughts are of course related and one feeds back into the other, creating an endless thought-loop. The loop begins with me realizing, forlornly, that it has been almost five years since I was outside of US borders (not including Canada, which doesn’t count because it’s only a six hour drive from me and is exactly like America except if everything were way better). At this point, I start going down the list of all the places I have never been. I have never climbed the steps of Machu Picchu, never stood in the shadow of the pyramids, never stayed in an ice hotel in Norway, never rolled a large wheel of cheese down the verdant green hills of Gloucestershire. 

I start dreaming and planning, devouring travel blogs like they were the aforementioned giant wheels of cheese and saving online searches for airline tickets to various far-off destinations. Then I crosscheck the cost of airline tickets with my bank account balance. That’s the step that always blows its screeching metaphorical whistle in my face and puts up a giant “STOP” sign like a disgruntled school crossing guard who’s seen one too many oblivious little brats dart out into traffic. It’s the step that reminds me that I am really bad with money, or I should say, that I am really great at spending money. For this, I blame my parents. They worked hard at steady jobs all of their adult lives so that my brother and I could have everything we ever needed. They created a childhood for me that always felt materially and financially secure. The nerve of some people. 

As a result, I have always been accustomed to buying things that I want, when I want them. In my early adulthood, once I was out from under my parent’s protective financial wing, that meant buying things on credit cards. The fact that I didn’t actually have money yet didn’t phase me because, as my young twenty-something brain reasoned, “I want that thing though.” So, now I find myself at the beginning of my 30’s, finally making decent money, but with credit card debt and an inability to stop myself from buying tasty meals at restaurants and drinks out with friends or new shoes whenever I see something that looks like it needs to be on my feet. And this needs to change.

I want to travel and for that, I need funds. I want to travel so badly that I can feel my body start to veer involuntarily in the direction of the airport. While checking email, my eyes can’t help but wander to ads for flights and tour packages. I dream of cross-country train rides, fragrant street food, bustling markets, and hidden beaches. I am truly hoping that this desire to travel is strong enough to overcome my terrible spending habits. The more I think, the more I realize that I want to travel more than I want to eat blue cheese burgers on rooftop restaurants in my home city. I want to travel more than I want to wear the latest pair of running shoes or attend every concert on the lawn this summer.

That was eight months ago. So, how is the money thing going now, you ask? Well, I am proud to announce that as of August of 2016, I am completely, officially, 100% debt-free for the first time in all of my adult life.



I have finally managed to drag myself out of the immense hole that is credit card, college, family, and medical debt (i.e. that unfortunate trip I took to the ER last year for what I could have sworn was appendicitis but turned out to just be stress-induced constipation. Lesson learned: invest in some $8 Mirolax before you wind up with a bill for $900 and a sleepless night on a hospital gurney next to a guy who got so drunk that he face-planted into his coffee table and is gushing blood through the Van Halen t-shirt wrapped around his head.)

The point is, Exhibit A proves that this whole travel idea has been on my mind for a while. Not only is it not going away, but it actually helped me accomplish something that I hadn't been able to do for an entire decade. Yes, getting a grown up job that didn’t pay me in Monopoly money certainly helped me get out of debt, but it was also a concerted effort to reign in my spending so that I could look at the price of a plane ticket to Prague and not immediately think, “Oh cool, I might as well just buy the rights to the Beatles’ song catalog while I’m at it.”

Looking back at where I was eight months ago and where I am today made me realize that I do actually have the willpower to change my spending habits and move towards a great big, sometimes overwhelming goal. It made me think that maybe I could take it to the next level and start saving even more, even faster. It inspired me to make a few changes and set some new goals. So:

I canceled all my monthly subscription services. Yes, it was nice having fresh tasty (and expensive) Blue Apron meals delivered to my doorstep once a week. Yes, it was fun turning on my Roku box to watch Jojo choose between five different versions of an over-sized Ken doll on The Bachelorette, but my priorities have changed. I will now be dragging my own lazy butt to the grocery store to buy reasonably priced food and opting for forms of free entertainment like...talking to people? Reading library books? I don’t know. That part of the plan is fuzzy, but I'll definitely figure it out.

I am going to stop driving. For real this time. Last year I sold my car in an effort to save money on gas and insurance, be a better environmental steward, and force myself to bike and use public transportation more. Unfortunately, since that time I’ve also begun sharing a car with my brother and more often than not that means deciding to sleep in an extra 15 minutes in the morning and drive to work rather than achieve any of the noble and entirely attainable goals I previously set for myself. Getting up earlier and hopping on my bike is hard, but if I think of it as an extra $40 a month saved on gas that could go directly towards a few nights in a hostel in the Ukraine or street food in Chang Mai, I’m hoping it will be the extra motivation I need to leave the vehicle at home where it belongs.

I’ve pretty much stopped dating. At least, I’ve taken myself off all dating apps and websites, which may not sound like much of a financial gain, but considering there were times when I was going on three dates a week and always at least offering to split the check, this will definitely translate to more money in my travel account. To be honest, this is a double win because I was so tired of dating. So, so tired.

I will no longer be buying alcohol at bars or restaurants. This one is really hard because I love drinking; not in the bleeding-from-the-head, Van-Halen-t-shirt-tourniquet sense of drinking, but I am a fan of happy hours with friends, wine tasting in the Oregon valley, and sipping beers with a good book on outdoor patios in the summer. I’ve realized lately that drinking is one of my main social activities and for my own health and the health of my checkbook, I know that I need to cut way, way back. Maybe I’ll learn to love soda water with lime just as much as I love a cold amber ale. We’ll see...

I’ve stopped buying “stuff.” I’m not even a big fan of having stuff. I’m always the jerk who returns gifts and throws away birthday cards cause I’m like, “This serves no utilitarian purpose in my life,” and yet I’m still able to convince myself that I “need” certain stuff, like a new dress for an event, thirty different shades of nail polish, or a novelty can of Duff Energy Drink.

Meh. Probably not worth it.

Meh. Probably not worth it.

Well, no more. Before purchasing any non-consumable item (counting the Duff as non-consumable because it tasted like a million gummi bears jumped into a vat of acid), I will ask myself, “Does this get me closer to my travel goal?” If the answer is "No," then back on the shelf it goes.

In truth, I’m not really looking forward to this next step in the travel dream. I’m trying to get psyched up about it, but saving money sounds about as fun as working the night shift at the ER and explaining to people why they're being charged $900 for a tummyache. But I also don’t want to forget this part of the journey. Eight months from now, when I’m sitting at a cafe in Colombia or strolling along the canals in Amsterdam, I’d like to be able to look back at this very post, see just how far I’ve come, and file it away as evidence that I can go so much farther.