Saving money

How To Save Money For Travel

Everyone makes choices in terms of how they choose to spend their money. I am usually choosing to spend it on travel.

Cambodia. Siem Reap. North Gate entrance to Angkor Thom.

By now, this is somewhat of a habit; I’m used to these trade-offs and don’t even really think about them anymore. To an outsider though I know it can seem a bit of a mystery. “I spend all the money in my paycheck, how can I save any?”

Simply put: stop spending money without thinking.

Everyone has a list of things they are unthinkingly spending money on. The idea is to examine each of these things and decide if that really is how you want to spending it, or if spending it on… say…. a flight to Southeast Asia is more interesting to you.

These are the things I’ve been able to examine, and cut, from my own budget:

  • No cable TV. I gave up cable tv a few years ago, and have never looked back. I bought an antenna to watch local news, and have Netflix and Amazon Prime for my streaming needs. I don’t miss it at all. This represents at least $100/month.
  • No landline phone. I had one installed when I first moved into my apartment, but cancelled it a couple years ago. Savings: $30/month.
  • Brown bag lunch to work every day but one day a week. This saves $150/month.
  • I don’t buy coffee drinks every day, I make it at home before I leave. $100/month.
  • I go out for few big restaurant dinners; I do get takeout once a week and do occasionally have dinner out with friends, but it’s not as often as most folks in San Francisco. This probably saves ~ $200/month.
  • No DVDs. Ever. I don’t buy them. I also buy little new music, listen to Pandora or Spotify instead. I buy few new books, usually only ones related to upcoming trips. New clothes only if I really need them. This probably saves  $200/month as well.

So what does that total to? $9360 a year.  Yep, I checked the math. There are probably a few things I’m not listing here that I’m not even thinking of cause I don’t regularly spend money on them, so I bet you could stretch this to $10,000 if you really tried. You save that, and you’re going to be going on a couple (or three!) nice trips every year.

Angkor Thom, Cambodia

It’s all about your priorities. It really is. Do you really want to travel? If you do, you can make it happen. I was doing an international trip (and a couple of domestic ones) every year when I was making less than $30k. It was rough, don’t get me wrong. I was eating beans and rice and shopping at the discount grocery store, but it’s possible.

One of the best ways to get started I think is to decide how much money per month you’re going to save, let’s say $250/month to get you started. Cancel cable, or the landline, or whatever else you have to do, then set up your direct deposit to put $250 into a savings account every month. That way, you don’t ever see the money, and it’s not there in your checking account tempting you.

Do that for a while, then cancel something else. Cut down on going to the movies, stop shopping as a way to spend your weekend or hang out with your friends. Start bringing your lunch to work. Crank the savings up to $500/month and keep going.

Cambodia. Siem Reap.  Tuk-tuk ride through Angkor Thom.

You should still have treats, don’t get me wrong. Get lunch with your coworkers every Friday. Get takeout sometimes. Go out for happy hour. But make these choices consciously, knowing what the trade-off is.

Then book that flight to Bangkok.

Taking a month off for the trip of a lifetime, part 2

Saving money is a bitch. It’s tedious. It’s weeks eating a bag lunch at work, months without buying new books or clothes, and over a year of watching all your outgoing expenses like Scrooge. It takes discipline. And so boring! So just post some pictures on the fridge of where you’re going to go and dig deep. You can do this. Every dollar saved brings you closer to your dream trip. One trick that a lot of people use is to set up a separate savings account, just to make it easier to mentally set aside the money. Then, you can set up automatic deposits from your paycheck and you never even see the money, making it a lot easier to save. And when you think about saving, don’t forget all the little bits of money that go through your hands that often just get spent: every bonus, every tax refund, every thing you’ve been wanting to sell on craigslist but have been too lazy to do, all of it.

It’s a good thing I was home-bound saving money, cause there’s a lot to research for a trip like this. I live in California, so I’m not exactly outfitted for polar travel. The travel companies provide general packing lists of what to bring, but there is just so much I didn’t know about this stuff.

Somehow I stumbled on Trip Advisor and their forums. The Antarctic Travel forum specifically is a treasure trove of information on gear and what to expect. Just what weight long underwear do you need? Wait, there are different weights of long underwear? Which gloves do photographers prefer? What the hell is a sock liner? All those questions and a thousand more are answered there. This was an incredible resource while I was planning this trip — one thing that might not readily occur to you is this: there are no stores in Antarctica. You forget something and you’re SOL*. So the more you plan, the better.

The forums also contain lots of fascinating trip reports from people who’ve traveled there already. There are even threads for specific voyages, so I was able to “meet” a few people on my trip before I even left. The trip reports that previous travelers post there are also great. If you’re having a moment of weakness, wondering if it’s all worth it, read one of those. You’ll be bouncing off the walls with excitement.

Upclose and personal

In the end, I gathered my courage and told work about the trip 6 months out. I had 2 weeks of vacation, but would need to take another 2 weeks as unpaid leave. Given the hesitant, halting way I broke the news to my boss, I’m sure he thought I was going to either quit or tell him I was pregnant. If you look at it that way, one month off is nothing! It could be so much worse! In the end he was fine with it, because we had 6 months to prepare a plan to keep everything rolling while I was away.

I know, I know: You have a million reasons why you couldn’t possibly do this. You have responsibilities! A job! Bills! Yes, well we all do. That’s where the planning comes in:

What about work? At work I cross-trained a few coworkers to handle the urgent day-to-day stuff I take care of, and they took turns doing it while I was gone. Of course there are some people who maybe wouldn’t be comfortable doing this. There is a risk of course that work will find they don’t need you to do the job after all. I wasn’t really concerned with this, not because my coworkers couldn’t do the job – they did great  – but because the job you do isn’t just about the tasks you take care of, it’s also about the experience you have and familiarity you have with how to handle problems that come up every day. That can’t be taught. So stop worrying so much.

What about bills? You need to set up automatic payments to fire while you’re gone, anticipating any gotchas like car registration coming due. About half of my bills are on auto-pay, half aren’t, so I just had to set up a few things and try and remember if I would start a new cycle of car insurance payments or whatever while I was away. Just sit down for an hour and plan it all out.

What will you do with your cat? I have a dog and a cat. I took the dog up to my Mom’s house 4 hours away to stay there while I was gone. I pestered a friend into taking the cat to his house for the month. They wanted to “test drive” having a cat for a while anyway, so in the end that worked out okay too. Cats get weird when you take them out of their environment, but he settled down after a few days.

What about your apartment?  You can either get a friend to house-sit for you or you need to stop the mail and let the neighbors know that you’re going away and not disappeared down a ravine somewhere. Leave emergency contact numbers (for your parents, for the ship’s sat-phone and the expedition company) with them in case something crazy happens like a fire or someone breaks in.

You have to clean out the fridge before you go — you don’t want to come home to a biohazard. Please, please remember to take the used coffee filter out of the machine the morning of the day you leave. I made that mistake once.

Turn off the heat if you can to save some money while you’re gone (it doesn’t freeze here so leaving it off in winter is not a worry). Maybe set a lamp on a timer so it looks like something is happening in your place in the evenings.

Call the insurance company to get them to okay you picking up two months’ supply of prescriptions so you won’t run out while gone. If you need glasses, definitely throw a backup pair into your packing box. A man on my trip broke his and it was a drag.

See? You’re almost done planning this out! You just need to buy a few things!


Iceberg, Gerlache Strait

A few people on the Antarctic forum posted actual Google doc packing lists, which were really helpful — reminding you to bring things like pepto bismol and bandaids and dramamine. I edited one for myself and made adjustments for all the photography gear I would need.

I relied on my Amazon shopping cart extensively. I didn’t buy everything from them, but when I thought of something I would need, I just added it there to remind me. This made it really easy to remember all the little things (extra-strong sunscreen, duct tape, sensor-cleaning wipes for my camera, etc) I needed to get. When I bought them, I just threw them all into a big box in the corner of my living room– a suggestion made on the TripAdvisor Antarctic forum, by the way–  which made packing really easy cause I just had to grab what was in the box.

Consider buying a new camera and a couple of longer lenses for getting really sharp wildlife images. Get vibration reduction (VR) lenses if you can – anything you shoot from the ship will be suffering from the movement of the ship and the shuddering of the engines, so it can make a huge difference. You can easily spend as much on lenses as you did on the trip itself, so consider renting them instead. A company like LensRentals makes getting your hands on that long lens a lot cheaper. They even sell insurance in case something happens to it.

At the beginning, all the work and all the preparation that I was going to have to do for this trip seemed Herculean, but it wasn’t really. Break it down into parts, keep lists, start early so you have time to remember anything you might forget. In the end I was possibly over-prepared. There were some things I brought that I didn’t use, but most of it I did and majority of the things I brought fit the bill perfectly.

So, was it worth it in the end? Absolutely. The trip was spectacular… we saw everything I’d hoped we’d see and lots I wasn’t even expecting. I learned so much about Antarctic wildlife and history. In the coming weeks I’ll post about the different locations we visited and what we saw there.

*The ship did have a small shop, where you could get a few essentials like deoderant and a hat, but the selection was limited and several things sold out quickly.