Yes, I Travel; No, I Don’t Have a Trust Fund: Budgetary Breakdown of a Working-Class Frequent Traveler

It’s happening again. I’m busily getting my life in order—writing post-dated rent checks and filing my taxes (before Feb 1!) and generally preparing my life at home to cruise on autopilot while I go travel—someone will eye me narrowly, a half-slit of suspicion, and ask, “So, how do you get to travel so much?”

Which is actually a question within a question—an implicit way of asking, “Where the hell do you get the money?” Which, given that I work as a waitress, is also to ask, “Who’s giving you the money to travel?”

They initially don’t believe me when I answer, “I save a lot.” Which is to say, “I budget like crazy.” Which is to say, “No one’s giving me money; every penny I have I earn.”

I’ve found myself breaking it down, taking it further, explaining my budgeting technique and demonstrating iPhone apps as Exhibit A in the No, I’m Not Secretly Rich defense trial. Which isn’t so much an effort to prove myself to other people (okay, maybe it’s a little that), but really to answer the question for myself. Because honestly, I don’t know how I afford it all either.

Through this recent round of explaining, I’ve begun to see more clearly that I’m a bit peculiar when it comes to money. I’m not sure where that comes from either. My family was pretty poor when I was growing up, and money was always a stressful issue, so it might grow out of that. Or it might just be who I am.

Either way, I’ve always been a budgeter. I’ve always kept meticulous track of my finances, my expenditures and income. I’ve never paid a bill late. I can always tell you exactly how much I have in my checking account. This is not normal. There weren’t any other 19-year-old punk kids who drew charts in their organizers with savings schedules and projected income based on the averaged income from the previous months. (Where there any other punk kids with organizers to begin with?)

So it’s not a new development, not solely a product of having a goal, something I love, to work towards and save for. Nor is this meticulous budgeting necessarily a product of not having anything but my own ability to work to fall back on. My background is purely working-class; there’s no trust funds, no investments or money market accounts, no heirlooms, no looming inheritances, nothing to pass along the generations but a propensity towards denial and socialism. My parents have done everything they can for me, given me everything they could give me, so it’s not like I’ve never had help. But I work for everything I have. Here’s how I do it.

Exhibit A: Realistic Budgeting

I live comfortably on $2,000 a month. This includes everything from necessities like rent and health insurance to indulgences like lattes and dinners out. It’s really important for me to work in modest indulgences, and to hold myself to them, to not try to “work harder, push more, save more.” Because it’s important for me to not feel like I’m constantly scrimping and saving for some future goal (and thus living in the future), but also allowing myself to enjoy today (and thus live in the present).

I long ago figured out how much I need to live comfortably and happily, to not feel like I’m depriving myself—a budgetary form of crash dieting. The number has slowly crept up the older I’ve gotten, because adult life is expensive; but my income has also crept up. Which brings us to…

Exhibit B: Knowing How Much I Earn

This sounds pretty basic, but when you work in a cash-based industry, it’s really easy to lose track—to wind up with a drawer full of twenties and no real idea how much you’re actually earning. A lot of people I’ve worked with over the years have no clue how much they make, and no idea where the hell the money all goes.

I currently take home between $2,500 and $3,000 a month. Which means I’m earning $500-1,000 more than my expenses. There’s a fuck of a lot you can do with that kind of money. Such as travel. And get tattooed.

Exhibit C: Treating Saving Like a Bill

I deposit money into my savings account on the 15th of every month. I treat it like another bill, instead of a if-I-have-money-leftover kind of thing. It’s pretty simple, and that’s all I have to say about it.

Exhibit D: Keeping Track of Everything I Spend

And I mean everything. I like to think of this more as “thorough” than “neurotic” (you say “potato”…). iPhone apps have made this infinitely easier, but I used to do it by hand, in my organizers, with crooked-line charts and bleeding ink.

Exhibit E: Maintaining a “Prudent Reserve”

In addition, or underneath, all my regular saving for travel, there’s a baseline I never dip beneath. I maintain a $2,000 “prudent reserve” for total emergencies—my car explodes, I break my leg and can’t work, etc. So even when I’m coming back from a trip, I’m never completely at zero. If disaster strikes, I’ll have enough to live on for at least a month.

The end result of all this is that I know where all my money is going, and exactly how much is coming in. There’s no murky intransparencies. I don’t have to stress out; I can be comfortable in the fact that there’ll be enough.

I realize this sounds like a lot—when I’m done explaining it all to someone, their eyes have invariable glazed over and they no longer doubt me when I say that I don’t have secret trust fund. They’ll shake their heads and say something to the effect of, “I could never…”

And I realize that this all sounds terribly tedious and like a lot of time and work. But for me, the energy I put into budgeting is far less than the emotional energy of worrying that there won’t be enough, that I won’t be okay. Budgeting for me allows for a kind of freedom—and not just the freedom to travel and do what I love. But that’s nice too.

14 Responses to “Yes, I Travel; No, I Don’t Have a Trust Fund: Budgetary Breakdown of a Working-Class Frequent Traveler”

  1. 1 Lesley February 4, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    Wow. You should teach classes. Seriously, this kind of thing is such a skill… I only learned it after I got married. (And then I realized how freeing a budget could be!) Wish I would’ve been more responsible in my 20’s.

  2. 2 Hal Amen February 4, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    I love upfront travelers’ posts about money/budgeting. Probably b/c I’m neurotic…er, thorough, too.

    I remember Carey and I were on a bus in Hawaii, the “reward” destination we’d chosen to cap our 3-month bike tour in SE Asia. The guy next to her was making small talk and the bike trip was brought up. “Oh…you must be independently wealthy.” We’re still not sure what that means, but his tone didn’t imply a positive.

    The truth was we’d just spent 2 years working at a publishing company in Korea, making $30,000 each, having our rent paid by the boss, and paying 0 income tax. As you say, there’s a LOT of traveling to be done with money like that. But that’s still seen as entry-level cash to most people, not enough to “splurge” on a “luxury” like frequent travel.

    All about priorities, I guess. And, of course, meticulous record keeping and an irreverent love for finding tax credits/deductions every April.

    Enjoy SE Asia. You’ve earned it!

  3. 3 Mary S. February 5, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Love this! I’m a starving barista/art student working my way through my last few months of college, but am travelling to Ireland in April and Costa Rica (hopefully) in the summer. I caught the travel bug baaaad and have been counting every single penny I make since my first trip out of the US last summer. I have had much the same conversation with my coworkers as to how can I afford to travel when I have to pay for books, art supplies, classes, etc., without my parents giving me money for it all. I used to be terrible at saving but travel has definitely taught me the benefit and fun of learning to budget and save.

    In my mind, the biggest obstacle is that international plane ticket. Once I have the money saved up for that, of course I can save up for the rest – I’ve already come so far and can’t give up now! Thanks for the tips. I really do need to bolster my emergency fund…

    • 4 laurenquinn February 5, 2011 at 12:47 am

      The plane ticket is always the biggest singly expense for any trip I take. I’m not too up on all the flight deals (not worth all the energy for me), but I will say that frequent flyer programs are totally worth it. Every year or so I get enough points for a free trip somewhere.

  4. 5 Naomi February 7, 2011 at 3:24 am

    …this post is probably the most upfront, clear-cut and practical ‘how to stop bitching about personal finances and finally get them together to travel’ I’ve seen yet. You’re awesome :>

  5. 6 Sarah February 7, 2011 at 7:18 am

    This is the way I’ve always budgetted as well. From the age of 15 I made sure I knew where all of my money was going and that a sizeable proportion of it was going towards my travels. I’ve never been able to understand how people can not know where there money goes! Hopefully this will be really helpful to people looking to get their finances in order and get travelling!

  6. 7 Rebecca February 8, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Good on you! I work hard and save too so that I can travel – and there should be no shame in that. All those people eyeing you off and wondering where you’re getting the $$ are just jealous!

  7. 8 Angela February 10, 2011 at 3:56 am

    I can totally relate, my finances are simply not bottomless, so in order to survive I need to budget carefully, because I can sacrifice many things, but in no way I can sacrifice traveling. When I lived in London, the life was so expensive that in two years I managed to organize only 2 short trips. Result: I was going crazy. So I moved to Shanghai, where life is much cheaper, better quality and awesome places to visit all throughout SE Asia 😉

  8. 9 Aaron @ Aaron's Worldwide Adventures February 10, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Preparing to travel is all about fiscal discipline! Most people think that you hsve to be rich to travel, but with some careful financial planning, you can accomplish quite a bit! Through some self discipline, I was able to save $2,000 in about 9 months on a fairly meager salary after all my expenses.

  9. 10 clickclackgorilla February 16, 2011 at 1:30 am

    Up the neurotically organized punks! Heh. Nice model you’ve got going there. High fives for you.

  10. 11 Fraser May 7, 2011 at 2:28 am

    Brilliant info on the discipline of travel saving!

    My friends often ask me how I manage to travel so often, and all your reason are mine too. I don’t have a reserve of cash, I’m just very ambitious with my planning and steadfast in my belief that I can make it happen.

    The little occurrences of debt I’m happy with. I wouldn’t trade my lifestyle 🙂

  11. 12 Kurt W December 13, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    A little cash goes along way in most of the world…

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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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