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.
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Looking forward to part 2! The sentence “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.” Is one I could have written.
I sometimes really have to force myself to buy new clothes or things like that. I’d rather save those dollars for travels. And people don’t always understand, wonder how I can afford to travel as much as I do. And than I tell them: “Priorities, it’s all about priorities.”
Totally about priorities…I can’t remember the last time I bought something like a new dress but I buy plane tix regularly. Thanks for reading!
Can’t wait for part two. Hope you were able to cut loose a bit more ☺ I hope to have half of your discipline in Thailand! Europe is hurting my wallet.
It’s funny in Thailand because most things are relatively affordable so you don’t have to spend too much…but then you feel like you don’t have to be quite as careful of your budget so can easily slip into splurging…
This is super interesting. You have excellent discipline when it comes to spending – and I’m glad I’m not the only one who really hates buying new things and feels bad about spending too much money! Sounds like you really busted your ass before you left Seattle. Can’t wait to read Part II.
I *usually* am disciplined when it comes to spending 😉 I’m glad that’s something that comes easy for me, but it also has it’s drawbacks…I could have done many more things while backpacking through Southeast Asia but was too cheap to cough up the cash. Thanks for reading!
Great inside perspective! It’s refreshing to read honest articles of how people actually came about traveling or living in different countries.
I hope it’s interesting! There’s nothing really new I can say about saving money to travel – you save it and then you use it to travel – but feel like it’s sometimes helpful to hear the little details of what people did/are doing and makes you feel like you aren’t the only one!
Love that the underlying theme here is that there’s still the need for budgeting while spending as well! Sometimes it’s easy to forget that once you’ve saved the money you need, you still have to be smart about where it goes once you’re on the road. Looking forward to part 2 on Wednesday 🙂
I really enjoyed this Alana and am looking forward to part two. Especially: “I wanted to spend my money on travel. And food” Yes! A girl after my own heart for sure. Though I am not nearly as disciplined as you unfortunately, I definitely prefer spending my money on “doing and eating stuff” rather than simply “stuff” 🙂
If you’re buying really incredible, can’t-live-without, best-thing-ever stuff, it’s okay 😉 I recently surged on a beautiful bedspread – a bedspread – that was probably overpriced but I really loved it and had thought about it for months and it looks perfect in my wooden Thai room. No regrets.
Oh yes I agree about that! I guess the best motto we can all live by is to spend money on the stuff that means something to us – that might be clothes, travel, cars or bedspreads. Oh and we recently did something similar and bought a crazy priced duvet cover. So expensive but so the softest thing I have ever slept with! And we’d bought some cheaper sheets to start with that were so scratchy we couldn’t sleep. It was definitely worth splurging 🙂
Those are the types of things I don’t like spending money on at first, but then you realize you use them EVERYDAY so they’re worth it!
I can’t imagine living here in the Seattle area and paying rent, utilities, wifi, and cable for just a little over 1/10 of my income. It sounds like You got a really good deal. I wish it was more affordable here… or that I got paid enough that I could get all those things for only 1/10 of my income!!
True, it would never work out. There are a ton of shockingly cheap things over there, but on the other hand, working 50+ hours a week for less than $1,000 a month can be rough. You can certainly live comfortably in SE Asia for that, but anything out of the ordinary, like having to buy a new computer or a plane ticket, is difficult to do on that little.
Wow, I like to save for travel too but I don’t think I could ever be that frugal. That took incredible discipline and determination. For me that sounds a little extreme, I go for budget hotels but not the dodgy kind and I like to eat out, but I respect you for doing what it takes to follow your dream and get what you want. Looking forward to part 2.
This was also four years ago when I was in full cheap backpacker mode 😉 A little extreme, yes, I could have spent more money and been just fine, but at the same time I haven’t dipped into my savings since I was continuing to make (a little bit) of money and stay frugal.
Great post! It’s amazing the impact a little (or a lot of) discipline can make on your life. These are the kinds of things people need to learn in high school so that they understand the opportunities ahead of them if they are wise.
Looking forward to part II 🙂
It’s always hard to find that balance though of being disciplined/thinking ahead and taking advantage of opportunities or enjoying what you have!
I found this post very helpful! It helps to read about what someone else did specifically. My husband and I are moving to Thailand later this month to do much like you did in the begining – take our TESOL course! Then we will be placed and begin teaching. I look forward to part II!
Thanks for reading, Julie – what part of the country are you moving to? Good luck!
We are not sure yet! We will start with our training in Hua Hin and then get placed from there. We would love to be in Chiang Mai though if we can!
I’ve never been to Hu Hin but have heard nice things…enjoy!
We will first be in Hua Hin for one month, but after that we are not sure yet!
Very good. Keep it up.
The key to long term travel on very very minimal money is the ability to save on rent by staying with friends and family, at least in my specific case. And we built a whole app to facilitate it 🙂
I looooove posts like this – I’m a sucker for details, so I really enjoyed your breakdowns. Looking forward to part 2!
Thanks for reading, Rika – appreciate it!
Interesting yet inspiring. Some people just don’t get it, happy enough with their ordinary life. And when they saw our pictures moving around here and there, they thought we’re rich without thinking that we worked hard and deserved to see all these stunning places around the world.
Thanks for reading Velysia, I’m certainly lucky but also use that luck and hard work to make things happen!
Dang girl, you’ve been hustlin’! That much is clear! I am already really loving this series… it’s fascinating to me to see how people do what they do and do it well. In fact I actually just wrote a post sort of similar to this one (about traveling on an ESL teacher’s salary)
One thing left me curious: when/why did you decide to leave Seattle and move to Thailand to begin with?
What you can do on an ESL teacher’s salary is an interesting one because it varies so much from place to place! To answer your question, I wanted to travel and live abroad more (I lived and worked in London right after college for a brief time and went through Western Europe). I had visited Thailand on a quick vacation and immediately know I wanted to spend more time there and thought I would “start” in Thailand then slowly work my way back to the U.S. Clearly part of that idea didn’t really go as planned…
great post! and same here, i would much rather spend money on a plane ticket than expensive clothes, though in all honesty, when i return home to my friends with nothing tangible to show for my efforts, i find myself comparing my life to theirs and feel a bit left behind i guess. its important to remember that i value experiences over things. cool to see someone else out there values the same things!
Did you initially dip into your savings when you moved to Thailand, like for a motorbike and whatnot? I’ve had to dip into a chunk of mine and I’m hoping I’ll be able to pay it back on my teaching salary (I also don’t pay rent or lunch, the school does thankfully!). But I also have $230 in American bills I pay back home which is a bummer, but is what it is. Like you, I want to stay frugal and travel and experience SEA Asia
Honestly, it was so long ago that I don’t really remember, but I thin I may have only taken out savings to pay for my initial rent deposit (which only would have been a couple hundred dollars). I worked for a couple months before buying my motorbike, had very cheap rent and only ate street food (unfortunately I didn’t have my rent or lunches paid for!).
Smart move, will wait a bit as well. Thanks 🙂 I’m grateful for the free rent and lunch for sure because my salary contributes to my american bills! #adultlife
Hey, sorry to comment on such an old post, but do you mind me asking which company you did your TEFL course with? Just found your blog, inspired and really enjoying your posts! x
SEE TEFL in Chiang Mai – the course was great and I went on to work with them for a year – loved them!
39 Comments on How I’ve Traveled Around the World for 4 Years Without Going Broke