Keep your financial goal in sight and make it fun!

When we originally started planning on moving to China, there was one giant obstacle in our way: money. We’ve never made much money and pretty much spend what we made on our bills and living expenses. Since I work freelance, I don’t have vacation days so even if we go away for a week, I work. I just can’t afford to miss a week’s paycheck because money’s tight. (We have a little savings cushion but that’s for emergencies only, not living expenses.)

So, with two people living pretty much paycheck to paycheck, how were we supposed to move to China for a year? I mean, it doesn’t matter if we live in New Hampshire, China or in a cave on top of a mountain somewhere, we still need to pay our student loans, our mortgage, our storage unit fees, our health insurance, etc. Not to mention all the added expenses of plane tickets, visas and other travel related expenses.

Yet despite so much going against us, we managed to save enough. Here is how we did it. (Warning: this is not some get-rich-quick scheme. This is work, hard work, but being able to go away for a year, worry-free, is the carrot that kept us pulling the cart even when we were exhausted.)

Take a hard look at your bills

To figure out how much you need to save, you need to know how much you spend. Down to the penny. This is the first step, and absolutely critical. Collect your latest bank statement and credit card bill and go over them with a fine tooth comb. For one month, keep track of every dollar you spend including bills that come out of your bank account automatically, like gym memberships. Then write down any yearly expenses you pay once, such as car insurance, magazine subscriptions etc. You need to know how much money you spend to know how much to save.

Trim the Fat

This is scary (and at the same time a little bit fun if you are a budget nerd like me) but you need to trim your bills down to a manageable size. If you are off traveling, you can’t worry about paying 15 bills a month. That’s just too much to keep track of. Think about when you are gone, say, trekking in New Zealand or eating in a Parisian cafe. Are you going to want to be paying your cable bill at home? Or your netflix account? No, of course not! So cancel all those unnecessary expenses now.

Reducing your bills now has an added psychological benefit of re-arranging your current life and mindset to a traveling/goal oriented mindset. If you usually come home, plop down on the couch and turn on the TV for awhile, getting rid of cable might seem jarring at first. But you’ll be forced to face your goal everyday. (For instance when you come home, plop down on the couch, turn on the TV and find nothing there, you will instantly think about your trip, and the reason for a blank screen.)

Some expenses you can’t cut until right before you travel (like car insurance) but personally, I was quite surprised at how many bills we had a month, and how easy some of them were to get rid of.

The B-Word: time to create a budget

By now you should be getting some final numbers together and making a trip budget. I would suggest budgeting for the worst case scenario.(aka: the longest time frame possible, the highest expenses you expect, the most you will pay for your bills.) For example, we have no idea how long we are going to spend in China. We signed a six month contract, but are hoping to spend the full year over there. So our travel budget is 12 months long. Also, as I didn’t know some of the costs in the beginning I put in the highest amount. I knew that I wouldn’t be paying $433 a month for health insurance like I am now, but at the time I didn’t know how much to expect. So I just plugged in $433 a month until I found the real price. It feels really good to reduce your travel budget, but it is heartbreaking and frustrating to make it higher. So err on the side of caution.

Also, add ALL of your expenses. Don’t forget visa costs, plane tickets, passport fees, and of course daily living expenses. We have the advantage of making money while we are traveling, so we didn’t have to worry about daily expenses, but this is where you need to figure that out. Again, err on the side over-budgeting rather than under-budgeting.

Now you have a goal

After all that, you should have a final number. (Keep in mind this number will fluctuate as you continually refine your budget, so it’s a good idea to round up.) That is your goal. Put this goal all over the place so it is fresh in your mind. You know how town fund raisers have those giant thermometers out front of banks as they raise money for something? Do something fun like that. Make it an event. Instead of a thermometer, we made an outline of China and slowly filled it in as we got closer to our goal. We had a special pen, and every time we added more money into savings, we had a small ceremony out of filling in our goal chart. Make it fun, and keep your goal visible. We put out chart on the fridge, and when people came over they would comment on it and cheer us on.

Work your ass off

To make the money you need, you need to do one thing. Work. This is not the time to find meaningful employment, or job satisfaction. This is the time to work your ass off and yes, this part sucks.

For 8 months I worked my freelance job and I got another 9-5 job in customer service. I worked 80 hours a week for 8 long months. What did that mean? It meant getting up early to work, then stopping to go into work, then work all day just to come home to work. And of course I worked all weekend long.

Those 8 months are a blur, and they were tough to get through. But I kept my focus, kept my goals in mind, and my reward is a year of worry free travel. I admit, this part is not for everyone and can really test your conviction to travel. But if you’re like me, your wanderlust will overcome even the most hectic of schedules. Of course I saved every penny from my second job and I am fiercely protective of that money I worked so hard for. My goal is to not touch it until we are out of the country, and so far we haven’t.

Often when you hear about travelers, they have sold their house and all their possessions to travel unencumbered. We don’t have the luxury of doing that (we love our house and our cats and want to come back to them), and therefore have to work a little harder to make sure our bases are covered. It’s been a tough year, but I can see myself sitting on a train in China chugging off to a new and unexplored place and I know I’ll be thinking one thing: “It was all worth it.”


1 Comment

Ryan Wilson · July 12, 2009 at 12:10 pm

What? I don’t think this year’s been that hard. Ha ha! (please don’t kill me)
Great post. But, what happened to alternating the long winded ones with short ones. You’re getting as bad as me!

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