I realize that what I do for a living and my lifestyle is difficult for many people to understand. I don’t quite believe it myself most of the time, and rarely feel like I know what I’m doing so certainly don’t expect other people to get it. But I have noticed that there tends to be two very big misconceptions about what I do.
The first is that I’ve been on a perpetual vacation these past four years and the second is that I must be making a lot of money magically appear to be continuing to travel and live where I choose.
Neither are true, unfortunately.
I have, however, been able to live on less while enjoying richer experiences and still have as much money in my savings as I did when I started four years ago.
The short answer is: I have always worked, saved money and been super tight on my spending.
Here’s the long answer.
After college, I lived with my parents and worked full time for almost three years hoarding all the money I earned. I had a solid job working at a PR agency in Seattle that included benefits and some perks, but was only making entry level wages during most of that time, regularly working 50+ hour weeks and commuting two hours a day. I could have lived right in the city, which would have obviously lowered my commute time and simply been more fun, but I knew that I didn’t want to settle there and that every time I paid for rent I would have been thinking about the plane tickets that money could have gone toward instead. Was I a pleasant, nice to be around person those few years? Not really, but it gave me the foundation and financial means to spend these last four years not tied to a strict 9-to-5.
During this time, I was conscious of not spending money on things I didn’t need. I’ve always naturally been aware of my spending habits and sometimes frugal to a fault so I don’t usually find it difficult to cut back or stick to a budget. I also don’t like buying stuff, preferring to spend my money on experiences. I have no problem buying a $500 plane ticket…but it’s difficult for me to spend $50 on new clothes. There’s nothing wrong with buying things, if you really want and can afford them, but for me, I wanted to spend my money on travel. And food.
Before I left home, this was my situation:
Two days after I landed in Chiang Mai I started my TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) course. Even though I was suddenly in a country where the cost of living was much, much lower than my home, I was even more frugal. I had just quit my job, bought an expensive ticket to Thailand, and paid for my month-long course and accommodation without knowing when or where my next paycheck would come from. I was so tightly wound and focused on money, that I couldn’t enjoy the fact that I had worked and saved for years to give myself a comfortable cushion while being unemployed. During that month, aside from my course fees and lodging which I had already paid for in full, I usually didn’t spend more than $5 a day. I ate two street food meals a day, walked everywhere, didn’t buy anything and maybe splurged every once in a while on a coffee or beer (each costing about $2).
After my course, I decided it was a good idea to go to India for a month with a guy I had just met (that’s another story) and then planned to continue backpacking through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos before returning to Thailand and looking for work. Throughout the two and half months backpacking I did things as cheaply as possible. In India we always took the train riding in the open air cars (except the time I had a high fever, was pretty out of it and my friend made the executive decision to stick me in first class), stayed in complete shitholes (there’s no other word for them, the places we stayed had stains on the bed, doors and windows that wouldn’t close and, once, a bat flying around the bathroom) and maybe purchased a couple beers twice the entire month. Traveling on my own throughout Southeast Asia I still always took the cheapest transportation, stayed in the largest co-ed, i.e. cheapest, hostel dorm rooms, rarely took any organized tours and walked everywhere.
I ended up rushing through the countries more quickly than I anticipated, partially because it was my first time traveling solo and I was tired, and partly because I felt like I needed to start working again and make up for the previous three months when I had been just spending money. (Looking back, I had absolutely nothing to worry about and I wish I had taken my time traveling longer. I had the savings to do it, I would have been able to find a job later on and that was the last time I’ve been able to fully travel without any other responsibilities.) I got back to Chiang Mai and found a teaching job, place to live and motorbike within a month which took care of my basic necessities and cut down on accommodation and transportation costs.
I worked full-time (45 hours per week) teaching English at a private high school for about $750 per month, with no benefits, perks or even a class curriculum to follow, while teaching evening and weekend classes at a language school bringing my monthly income to just under $1,000. You don’t make much money teaching in Thailand, but you make enough to live on (if you’re smart about it) and still tend to be paid more than the Thai staff so can’t complain. Even making that little (compared to what I would have been making in Seattle) I managed to live comfortably enough and always had a little money in the bank.
During my first year, this was my situation:
Places I went:
Still reading? Check out Part II and Part III of this post about how I’ve managed to travel the world and live abroad for the past four years without dipping into my savings or pin this for future reading:
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
New places are always calling my name...
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