Culture is capital: personal finance for budget travelers

The worst grade I ever got was in high school architectural drafting.  I signed up for the class because I thought it would be a cool elective and had visions of studying the great buildings of the world through drafting their architectural elements.  This did not happen—instead we traced pre-designed building features from templates in various unimaginative combinations.  The final exam was the worst part: we were supposed to draft our dream house.  While the rest of the class sat down to draw out bloated mansions bulging with porches and 8 car garages, I was stuck because I wasn’t sure what my dream house looked like.  Could my dream home be a studio apartment in a dozen cities around the world?  “Absolutely not!” ruled my teacher.  This was supposed to be a dream home, not a dream lifestyle.  But where would my dream home be?  And what would I do in it?  All around me these students were tracing out floor after floor of windows and columns and all I could think about was how I wanted to live, but nothing about whether I preferred an indoor or outdoor pool.  I almost failed the class.

When it comes to personal finance, budget travelers need a laser focus on how they want to live.  You know how non-profits have a mission statement?  You should have one too.  Mine is something like “The Wife of Bath strives to be financially stable through meaningful work, to have loving and mutually supportive relationships, and to be a responsible world citizen.  She values living in a culturally and intellectually dynamic environment.  She promises to travel frequently for art in situ experiences, to snack often, and to wear gorgeous red lipstick.”

With your mission statement in hand, plan your budget.  First, a review of personal finance basics; live within or below your means, save/invest money (even if it’s a small amount), avoid debt other than mortgage and student loans, and regularly balance your checkbook.  Assuming you’ve covered these essentials, your travel budget will come from a combination of cutting personal expenses, and prioritizing a mission centered lifestyle.

This is how I keep personal expenses down: I spend discretionary money on what makes me happy, and cut out everything that doesn’t.  You’ll notice I didn’t say “entirely forgo materialism in favor of character building spiritual experiences”.  Yeah, I have read those articles that pop now and then about how to be happy we should spend our money on experiences instead of objects. Sure, there’s some sense to that but I’m secretly convinced that those articles are written by self-indulgent rich people who have never known the anxiety of choosing between paying medical bills or buying a warm winter coat, or who have put up with a crappy mattress yet another year so they can pay down their student loans.  Go ahead and be selectively materialistic, but find a way to make it affordable.  Me?  I loooooove fancy dresses and own way too many clothes (which I buy cheap from thrift stores and eBay) but I don’t own a car and I’m still using an old school flip phone for a cell.  HOB and I cook almost everything we eat, go for walks for fun, use the library every week, and then blow all that hard saved cash on airfare, no apologies.

Prioritizing a lifestyle centered on a personal mission is complicated but rewarding.  In an ideal world we could all have jobs that make a positive impact on the world while being financially fulfilling. HOB and I are pretty fortunate: we both work for non-profits that have low pay but high cultural rewards. (HOB is a community free speech advocate and I work in visitor services a Chicago arts organization).  I don’t want to make out like we’re some smug, patchouli-smelling secular saints, because we’re far from that (and just to put it out there, I have never, ever worn patchouli—barf!).  It’s just that although we love to travel, we like our day to day lives too and we find our careers rewarding and meaningful.  Would I find my job rewarding and meaningful if I was offered a big raise? [Nods vigorously].  Even without the big raise, I have outstanding job perks such as as comped admission to international performances, private tours with curators and artists, and I can visit almost all museums in the US for free.  Most of all, I love that my job is helping people experience art and though I haven’t managed to save enough money to get my plumbing fixed, I always seem to have enough to pay my bills and finagle another cheapo trip.

It could be that I almost failed the high school drafting class because I couldn’t draw a neat line (and being left handed means I always smeared the pencil carbon across the page).  I’d like to think, however, that being the type of person who couldn’t design a dream home freed up my mind to design a dream life instead, a life of small, practical choices that add up to more than a swimming pool and a three story McMansion.  If culture is capital, I’m filthy rich.

Brilliant readers: I’d love to hear your personal finance tips—-how do save money to travel?









  1. A great post. I’ve never heard the expression McMansion before but I shall now use it all the time! The biggest way we save money is to camp when we travel, it also gives great flexibility to the itinerary. If we don’t camp we self-cater, there’s some great deals out there. If you can save money on the trip you have to save less in the first place 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey thanks! There was a housing development near my grandparent’s place full of McMansions that they used to sniff at. The development had one of those cutesy names like “Meadow Village” and they called it “Plywood Acres”.

      I’m a big fan of self-cater too and now that there’s airbnb it’s easier to find a place. In terms of camping, how to you manage to transport your gear when going abroad? Or do you only camp at places you can drive too?


      1. We max out hold and hand luggage and take very little clothes! We hire a car when we get there to carry everything around. Last year we camped for three weeks in Canada and the States, we took our old two man tent with us, a double sleeping bag and inflatable roll mat and a folding gas burner then went to WalMart as soon as we landed to buy pillows, a cooking pot and basic cutlery and plates. To make room for our souvenirs we donated everything but the sleeping bag and mattress ro a charity shop on our last day. This year in Iceland, because we were only going for a week we actually managed to pack all we needed and bring it all back. The key to getting the sleeping bag to fit is to vacuum pack!

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Great post! I saved money while I was working (interesting job, although for a mega-corp) partly by NOT living in a McMansion. I retired after 30 years with a pension, unfortunately a disappearing luxury. No COLA, but it has been enough for budget travel. I retired early so I could travel before I got too feeble or some disaster struck.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, so you are fortunate to have a pension, that’s great! We both have generous 401 K plans through our jobs, which is the next best thing.

      You raise an important point about not waiting to travel later in life—who knows what could happen? Better to travel now when your knees can take it!


  3. So important to get your priorities right – Travel sits at the top of our priority list (actually that’s after family ofcourse).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve got that right! We don’t have any kids, but I like to think that my nieces and nephew find me a good role model as the crazy traveling aunt.


  4. I can’t say we saved a lot of money this time on our European trip (there will be blog posts). We do some biking which gives a different spin to adventures. We do aim for accommodation 90% of time that offer breakfast also. Occasionally we just buy a baguette, fresh tomatoes from a market and cheese for supper. I take a ton of photos now and don’t spend much money on trinkets anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good advice, thanks Jean. Actually, the baguette, cheese and tomato suppers are often my favorites (I’d add good local olive oil, though). Looking forward to the European trip blog posts!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Really interesting read! I personally love travelling self catering. I not only enjoy the fact it’s cheaper (who doesn’t!) but the flexibility it gives. It’s not often that cheap leads to flexibility…!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Like you said, self-catering is great because you save money, but also it can just be a relaxing way to unwind after a day of travel. Sometimes you just want to hang out in your underwear and boil spaghetti!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Awesome post – love your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Ashley! I hope you make it to Corsica this year!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you – me too!! Have you been?


  7. Not yet but I’d hop on a plane the second I got the chance.


  8. Riley Hoogendoorn · · Reply

    Great article! I can relate an article I wrote to this. I can leave the link to it if you wish to read it.


    1. Thanks for stopping by Riley. I’m glad we share an interest in financial freedom, though personally I can’t agree with looking to Trump as a role model. While I wish to be financially indepedant, I don’t have any desire to become wealthy by exploiting others.


  9. My most controversial tip for saving money while on holiday is…I eat a lot of fast food. I do like to try local cuisine but it can be pricey, so I usually go for a cheaper McDonald’s breakfast and something quick and easy for lunch, then pay for a nice local dinner. That way, I find I’m not paying loads of money on going out and fine dining. It’s almost selective materialism, as you say!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hear you since I don’t budget for fine dining either. Mostly I just go to fast food places to sneak into the bathroom. If I’m not picnicking I’ll go for street food—usually even cheaper than fast food!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re completely right about fast food vs street food. I’m still working on finding the right balance between the two.

        Haha, I do the same thing with the bathroom, it’s been a life saver several times.

        Liked by 1 person

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