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?