The Easy Guide to a Traveler’s Money Management (Part 1): The Power Is in Your Hands
Throughout May, Nathalie dives into money management for travelers in five parts. Which credit card is best? Can a regular ol’ traveler invest her money? Is it possible to earn and adventure at the same time? Nathalie has your most burning questions covered, so you can put those money worries aside and prioritize what truly makes you happy: travel.
“When did we forget our dreams? The infinite possibilities each day holds should stagger the mind. The sheer number of experiences I could have is uncountable, breathtaking, and I’m sitting here refreshing my inbox. We live trapped in loops, reliving a few days over and over, and we envision only a handful of paths laid out ahead of us…We act like if we just get through today, tomorrow, our dreams will come back to us.
“And no, I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know how to jolt myself into seeing what each moment could become. But I do know one thing: The solution doesn’t involve watering down my every little idea and creative impulse for the sake of some day easing my fit into a mold. It doesn’t involve tempering my life to better fit someone’s expectations. It doesn’t involve constantly holding back for fear of shaking things up.
“This is very important, so I want to say it as clearly as I can: Fuck. That. Shit.” — XKCD
Some say that money is the root of all evil.
Others, that money makes the world go ‘round. I say that money is a necessary product and tool of the world in which we live. Nothing more, nothing less.
If you’re reading this, then you have an Internet connection and most likely access to your own computer. This means that you live within the same fluffy cloud of ridiculous luxury as I do.
I’m not saying some of us aren’t more or less fortunate than others, but if you have a safe place to sleep tonight and the capacity to acquire food and clean water, then, yes, you live in absolute luxury. You are, at a minimum, part of the most fortunate 40% of the world’s population.
I don’t mention this to make you feel guilty but rather to remind you of the incredible good fortune into which you were born. You have the luxury of having the financial ability to look outside your immediate surroundings and explore the world outside yourself. This luxury is not to be squandered.
Everything I learned in the realm of finance, I learned from my best teachers: my parents. For 29 years I have watched my parents discuss every purchase together, often while perusing Consumer Reports and web review forums. I watched my father clip coupons every Sunday evening and match these coupons with the week’s grocery sales. I watched them rebalance their investments every three months to optimize returns.
When I was younger, with little understanding of these things, I thought my parents did them because they couldn’t afford NOT to. I eventually realized that they didn’t need to do these things, but because they did, they could take unpaid time off work when my sister and I were born. They could fly us across the globe to explore foreign countries. They could send us to the best schools and ensure our futures. They could afford the best doctor in the country when my father got cancer.
Because they spent less money on things, they could spend more on life.
As a consequence of my upbringing, I live an incredibly fortunate life, a life in which I eat amazing food, have a reliable car, live in a lovely home, explore locally and internationally, and indulge in everything I could ever need and want. I do all of this with $30,000 a year in take-home pay, over half of which I put away every year.
If what you want is to travel the world, to explore, to volunteer, to spend time with family, you can.
If you want to buy a house at the top of what some bank told you that you can afford, finance a new car, go out to dinner three nights a week, and watch cable TV every evening, you can.
I encourage you to do what makes you happy.
What you can’t do is buy that house, that car, that dinner, and THEN say that you can’t afford to travel. You can afford to travel; you simply decided that other things were more important.
All budgets are not created equal.
Most personal finance specialists — and pretty much every article ever found online — spout the golden 50/30/20 rule of a personal budget. This rule works on the premise that you should use 50% of your income on your needs, 30% on your wants, and 20% on saving and debt repayment.
While this can be an adequate budget in general, it is by no means optimal for someone who wants to become financially independent enough to ensure that she is not shackled to a desk job until the age of 65 and maybe even free enough to travel when she wants to.
A traveler’s budget is different; your priorities are not the same as the average person. The only budget you need is a list of your priorities in order of their importance and necessity to your health and happiness, both in the long- and short-term.
Here’s what my personal financial priority list looks like:
Safe and clean housing
Communication systems (Internet and telephone)
Long-term saving for travel and financial independence
Outdoor entertainment (camping, hiking, rock climbing)
All upgrades to the above categories, and all other entertainment
This list is the only budget I will ever need.
And I encourage you to make your own! Not only is it important for me to know which obligations are more important than others, but it is important to know the difference, within each category, between a “must-have” and a “nice-to-have.”
For example, while it would be nice to have a three-bedroom house with a huge yard, what I truly need is a safe and clean place to rest at night. While it would be nice to have a new hybrid car, what I actually need is a safe car that gets me from point A to point B.
By putting my travel wants ABOVE any upgrades to my housing/transportation/entertainment, my money becomes easier to manage. If I want to buy a new pair of jeans, I ask myself,
Do I already have pants that do the job? If the ones I have do the job, am I willing to take the hit to my travel and future budget for $50 jeans?
Sometimes the answer is “Yes;” most of the time it’s “No.”
If my friends invite me out to dinner, what is it that I really want: a $35 meal or an evening with people I care about? I would rather invite my friends over for a meal at home: It’s more fun, less expensive, and no one needs to drive afterwards!
By always being aware of what is truly necessary and important to you, and what is just “fluff,” it becomes simple to spend within your means — enough to travel more and more frequently.
Understanding your money is the first step in optimizing it in a way that makes travel a central part of your life…for the rest of your life.
If you have no idea how much comes in, where it gets spent, and how to manage it when it’s in your hands, you will forever feel like you’re running on a treadmill, hoping for the next trip with no distinct plan to get there.
As much as the next articles in this series will explain what to look for in a travel credit card, what kinds of bank accounts you want, and how to generate a passive income through investing, none of it will be of as much use to you as it would if you were already in control of your money and understood how it flowed in your life and what you wanted it to do for you above all else.
Remember, you have the luxury of being morally and physically responsible for your actions and decisions. This is the most important lesson in finance that my parents could have taught me and that I am here to tell you: Money can buy you things, or it can buy you your own time; it’s your choice.
The sheer quantity of cars, clothes, dinners out, and gadgets that I can buy with my money is infinite. There is only one thing that is truly finite: my time on this earth. And, frankly, my own time is the most worthwhile purchase I will ever make.
Nathalie was raised by two immigrant scientists who taught her, from a young age, the value of a dollar and, most importantly, how to align her spending with her values above all else. She has always been fascinated by personal finance, and her deep love of the outdoors and simple living has led her to be a naturally frugal adult. Her parents taught her both the beauty of compounding interest and the importance of living below her means. As such, she is her own financial advisor, re-balancing her portfolio every quarter and investing in real estate in her home city — all on her modest budget.