By: Jon Shumaker
Surf City, North Carolina
One of the oddities that many people assume is that you must be rich to travel. For an experienced traveler that is a ridiculous assumption. The direct answer is the same as the assumption that you must be rich to live a normal life with a job. The answer is it depends for both. For it depends on the lifestyle and the city that you chose to live. When people often think of travel, they seem to think that traveling is a holiday that people take for a week to an all-inclusive resort. Sustainable travel is on a budget that can often be quite small and the lifestyle is dependent on the person. What might surprise folks is that travel is often cheaper than living a fixed life in a developed nation. Several years ago, I lived outside of San Francisco in a finished shack about 2.5 by 3 meters while there for work. The cost of that shack was around $1,000/month. For a family to live in the City renting, they had to make a pretax income of around $145,000 just to live in San Francisco. Even in a lower cost city that I am living now, my monthly costs exceed what I would spend traveling. So when people say a traveler is rich because they are a traveler, that is not valid. It might be they are “wealthier” as in free because they travel and understand how do a lot with little. Have you ever been to a developing nation? The cost of living is far less and often safer than living in the States.
First, lets address what does it mean to be “rich” or “wealthy”? If you look at the survey question on what amount of money is required to be “rich”, those surveyed will respond from maybe $50,000 to $5 plus million. If you look at a happiness surveys of folks of different economic classes, it was found that at a relatively low income, higher income adds minimal happiness. In a dated survey from the States the income figure was around $75,000/year. They could provide for their family in every way. Any extra income just added more expensive dining options and a nicer car. To address the subjectivity of the question “what is wealthy?” is exemplified in a story that happened to me. When I was younger and was working at a gas station. When there was a shift change, one of the on-coming workers came in all excited. She exclaimed that she had saved $2,000 dollars and that she was wealthy. To understand the context, one must realize that she had a bankruptcy and resulting mental health issues in the past few years. The other worker and I realized how lucky we truly were. To focus on the question what is wealth, with another story told by the leader of a Buddhist temple in India. He had a friend that was wealthy, powerful, and not happy. He cheated on his wife constantly and didn’t know his family. He then lost his power and money. After he “lost it all”, he was happy and had a wonderful relationship with his family. Being rich to him was being happy with life. Being rich or wealthy is dependent on what one values. A family might value happiness and stability. Just as a traveler probably values freedom and new ideas/experiences. As Bob Marley said when asked that question, with money no but with life very.
To understand the budgets, one must understand the types of travelers. A traveler will meet many people of some variation of 3 types. First is the person who is on a 6 month stint on a backpacker trail with saved money and tries to see how little they can remember from excessive drug use. These folks often stay at party hostels or at least will often spend time partying there. They could save some money and just stay home. Then you have the second group that are trying to find themselves. This is the most common group you will meet. This is often where people start out when they first start traveling and then progress into the next class of traveler if they continue. Then there is the rarest of the traveler, the self-actualized. These folks might have some assets (not rich by any standard), but they understand why they fight. They travel for a purpose.
Travel budgets vary based on resources and mentality as one would expect. In Belize, I met a couple that was living on a target of $10 per day combined for the two. For anyone that has been to that country, they know how difficult that is to hit. They achieved that budget by staying a hostel in what could only be described as a small chicken coop on top of the building and paid for their stay by working a few hours a day. They cooked many of there meals at the hostel and shopped at the local market. For a nice meal out, they would get to the market area on a Saturday night for street food or eat at a small fusion place around the corner for $3 or $4 per person. That is the most extreme budget from anyone I personally met. On the other side of the budget was this gorgeous European hippy chic that is still the only person I’ve met who could live in the pioneer days and would probably enjoy it, considering she was living on a commune farm. Even made her own medicine! Her attitude was that she had worked hard for a good while to go on this trip, and she would enjoy herself for 3 months and enjoy the lower cost of Central America to treat herself.
Most travel folks fall in the middle category of around $800 to $1200 a month. I was told that my $1,200/month spending was high. This is relevant to most developing economies. Some more experienced travelers told me the cost of travel in African countries is often higher due to a lack of a developed middle tier tourist infrastructure such as hostels. Often, the tourist industry caters to upmarket tourist for expensive safaris or fancy hotels. Most westerns don’t want to stay in the same living standard as the locals. In the popular large cities’ hostels are available for very cheap often (in Cairo, Egypt for as little as $3/day for a decent place and some private rooms for $5/day as of this writing). For European travel, expect to pay more on food and lodging as the main expense. Hostels can be found from $10 and up a day depending on location and proximity to the city center. In London a few years ago, I found a wonderful hostel located above a bar that only cost $11/night right by a train station (it was maybe a 15-minute ride into the City).
One of the big costs of travel is the transportation. If it is bus, train, or a plane this often is the budget line item that pushes travel cost the most. If a person takes a 7-day trip and the cost of that ticket is $700 dollars, that adds $100 per day to the cost of travel without transport costs locally or other costs. Think instead you fly into Mexico City (with the return Lima Peru) and spend 6 months going thru Central and South America. The same $700 dollar flight is spread over 6 months at $3.89 per day (with some discount due to time value). The area traveled has a lower cost of living to developed nations, but the travel cost is high because of the duration of the trip. The total cost of the trip would cost around $7,000 dollars. How much would living in your city cost for 6 months? Hint, if you are working remotely take a long trip somewhere with a lower cost of living and short-term rental your normal lodging. That short-term rental income might cover your travel costs and your savings rate will go up.
Long-term travels might start out right out of high school resulting from a much-extended gap year or in their twenties or thirties after years of working and some professional success. With the FIRE movement spreading among the Millennial generation, there are probably more enjoy life folks. As a note to employers, these FIRE folks are high impact hard chargers so this shouldn’t limit their 10-year career in a “normal” job. The 40 plus year working folks will probably have the same impact often as the FIRE folks in 10 years. The youngest “retiree” that I personally met was a person that knew exactly what they wanted in their teens. To travel. They went to college for software development and took the highest paid job they could find. Then saved every penny they made and by 24, they were traveling full time with a small pension based on maybe a few hundred thousand investment account, after working for two years. He was not “rich” by most standards and lived on probably $1,000 a month. Few people have the foresight and discipline that this person had. More commonly, people will work part of the year in Australia or Canada, locations that has flexible work permits for those under 30. You will meet traveling fruit pickers, financial instrument traders, miners, wine makers, construction workers, and retail works commonly in this community. They live cheap and know how to save money. A few know how to invest also. These people have rich lives, but usually not in the monetary sense of the term usually.
Each person must determine what they value in life and drive for that objective. To many people often aren’t pursuing their “highest and best use” but what they think they want. My experienced uncle taught me to determine if a path is what you want. It is called the “and then” game. Go through the path you are on and ask yourself “and then” at every step. If you get to the end and it is not what you want, there needs to be a course correction. Keep doing this game until you find a path that is your highest and best use, other words what makes you happiest. This often is not the path that will make you “rich” in financial terms. As Brad Pitts character from the movie Fight Club says, “you work jobs you hate to by s**t you don’t want, to impress people you don’t like”.