This is the third and final part of a three-part post about how I’ve managed to keep traveling and living abroad these past four years without using up my savings. It’s not a guide on how to save money for travel or a complete budget breakdown, but an overview of how I’ve personally made it work. If you’re just starting, read Part I and Part II first.
A little over a year ago I (finally) started taking my freelancing more seriously. It wasn’t a test anymore, it wasn’t a transitional period, it was the way I need to be working to earn money or come back to the U.S. and get a “real” job. Fortunately, I also (finally) started getting more consistent, and better paying, job opportunities. Little seeds of opportunity and connections that I made years prior finally started coming fruition and I could start being a little more selective with the jobs I took – no more $3 a day for monitoring email or $15 for a blog post!
With my educational and professional background in PR combined with my more recent experience in the blogging/content marketing/SEO/copywriting world, lots of time trying to make new contacts, helping people out when they needed it hoping they would come back in the future able to pay, and simply some lucky random coincidences, I started figuring out how to better find work. It’s still not easy however, and at this time last year I was still working some really random jobs to make money like writing technical manuals for how to complete frisk searches at Australian airports (no joke) and churning out random blog posts for $25 a post (a little better).
I also spent a good chunk of the year at home in the U.S., living with my family and finding more U.S. clients along with going through training to become a personal caregiver as an extra way to earn some money and help those around me. When I stay in the U.S. my days are often spent working on my computer in the room I grew up in then, once or twice a week, heading into the city to try and see everyone I know all at once. I won’t spend much money for days and then I’ll drop $100 in a night as I jump around trying to catch up with different friends going out for a meal or drinks. I don’t pay for rent but all of the sudden am paying way more for gas, food, insurance and a phone than I do in Southeast Asia (not to mention the plane tickets and visas to go back and forth between the two places).
Last fall I went to Europe for five weeks and had most of my accommodation taken care of mainly by staying with friends – one of the perks of traveling or living abroad is that you start to collect friends (and places to stay!) all over the world. I stayed with people in Barcelona, Crete and London (thank God) and also had a handful of nights covered through sponsored accommodation.
I was also working the whole time I was traveling.
Freelancing online is great in that you can work whenever, wherever…but it means I’m always working whenever, wherever. Also, instead of having one boss that I need to ask for time off, I have multiple clients (right now I have seven) and asking seven different companies for “time off” is not easy. Since I continue to work while I’m traveling there’s never I a time when I don’t have any money coming in, but it also limits my time to explore and experience the place where I’m visiting. Instead of sitting in my room in the U.S. behind my computer, I’m sitting in a cafe or a hotel room behind my computer and regularly have to take full days to catch up/try to get ahead on deadlines.
For example, I recently went to Hawaii for five and half days with my cousin for fun…and completely worked on my computer entirely through two full days. I had clients in different timezones emailing last minute projects at midnight Hawaii time and started every morning by immediately getting on the computer by 7:30 a.m. Not really what you would call a vacation. Thankfully my cousin was really understanding. If I had a more traditional job, I most likely wouldn’t have been able to go to Hawaii at that time, but I also couldn’t take full advantage of being in Hawaii while I was there. There’s always a tradeoff. You can read more about how blogging and working online has significantly changed the way I travel here.
When I went back to Thailand last February after about seven months in the U.S. my living expenses in Chiang Mai were higher than they have ever been. I’ve been renting an entire house instead of an apartment or extra room, I have the dog to take care of, I invested in more tools and equipment for my freelancing business, and, honestly, got really tired of not having any cheese or wine in my Thai life so started splurging on groceries or going out to Western restaurants more often.
My rent for a two-story house close to the center of town is about $250 which is a steal, but I did invest in some big ticket items I never had to worry about before to make it more livable, like a new mattress and refrigerator, and I now pay for my own WiFi instead of having it included in my rent (which is still really just crazy cheap). As another way to make some extra cash, I rent out my extra downstairs room on Air BnB in conjunction with my landlords.
At first, this sounds like an incredible opportunity however, if I really think about, I question whether it’s worth the effort. On one hand, I’ve been regularly making enough money to cover my rent (score!) but, on the other, thanks to low accommodation prices in Chiang Mai, I only make about $12 a night in “profit” and that includes me having to correspond with potential guests, wait around for guests to arrive or leave, clean the room, make the bed and clean the bathroom while also sharing my living space with people I don’t know…for $12. Is it worth it? Yes, if I think about it in terms of free rent or how many plates of street food I can get. No, if I think about it in terms of how much money I’m actually making for the amount of time put in and what I could potentially be paid for that same amount of time elsewhere. I try not to think about it…but, this is just another example of finding work and money where you can and making it stretch as far as possible.
I have spent more money in the past eight months than I probably have in the past two years. Once I started having a steadier income I allowed myself to make some little splurges that I would have never indulged in before – and by splurges I mean, the new mattress (for about $150) instead of sleeping on a rock hard pad, WiFi (just over $25 including a phone line and cable), cheese and going for massages every week (about $12 for a 1.5 hour therapeutic Thai massage with tip) instead of once a month. These are my “splurges” – cheese, $12 massages and cheap internet that I need to have to complete my work – hardly wild purchases. For the first time in the past several years I’m not living paycheck to paycheck and the relatively little bit of money that I took out of my savings has been replaced – I may still be making way less money than I would have if I had stayed working in Seattle, but I also am certainly no worse off and now have a better balance of available time and available funds to travel.
That said, spending time in the U.S. does make me question what I’m doing and how I choose to use my resources. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in other people’s worries, expectations and realities of living in the US, especially when it comes to housing, healthcare and retirement. Am I going to be screwed in a couple years if I choose to move home but haven’t been making a solid salary for years? I would certainly need to be making more money to live comfortably in the Seattle area, but at the same time, I really don’t want or need a lot of the things or lifestyles I see people paying for. And, even though they may be making more money, I know a lot of people who seem much more stressed about money matters than I am. Something doesn’t add up.
Of course, there are some situations and expenses we can’t avoid, but to a degree many people have a significant amount of control over their choices and lifestyle…they just need to take responsibility for them. Whether you want to start a business, move somewhere new, invest time in a hobby you really enjoy or travel, in the end making things happen comes down to how much you want it and are willing to work for it.
Now, this is my situation:
Places I went within the past year:
Of course, it makes a huge impact that I’m choosing to spend a good portion of the year in a relatively affordable place. (But again, that’s my choice.) That, combined with working with people from around the world, allows me to really use my money and resources to my advantage, but I certainly don’t take it for granted and still do things to cut corners. (There are ways to save money even in an affordable place like Thailand.)
So there you have it, the long, long answer of how I’ve traveled and lived abroad for the past four years.
How do you save money for travel or make your funds last longer on the road?
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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