Since I started on this trip people have come out of the woodwork to ask me how I paid for my 6 month sabbatical. Understandable question, really. Whether they want to plan their own trip, or they are just downright curious about how a 30-year-old drops everything and travels 3 continents without working it’s certainly a solid inquiry.
Sometimes folks ask in a straightforward manner, but many times, it’s a more passive approach with a side joke – “So you must have come into a ton of money, haha.” “When did you win the lottery? wink.” “Did you find a money tree?” People on the road ask “Did your parents pay for this little vacation?” “So, you’re rich, right?” “Tienes mucha plata, si?”
Money can be a tricky concept to discuss, so I totally get the light, side-angle approach when asking. It’s one of the most highly-charged topics of conversation (and should never be brought up at a family dinner ;)). This completely subjective topic can make people stressed, depressed, and just plain angry.
Let’s Discuss this One First. What is Money?
Well, it’s not what we think it is. To start with, it’s not gold or silver, and it’s not even based on either. It was at one point, but no longer. It’s not bills and coins made of paper and metal, those are just IOU’s to the bank. It’s not even that number in your bank account that goes up and down. It’s really just a concept. It’s a means of exchange for services, value, time. It’s become systematized through banks making loans and creating it out of thin air. In the end, it’s really just energy gained and energy lost. Here’s video to eff with your mind regarding what money really is.
It’s a totally absurd concept when you frame it like that, but it’s been one that has controlled many of my life choices thus far. And let’s be real – abstract or absurd – it runs things.
A Little Context About my Relationship with Money
For me, it’s been a highly stressful topic throughout my life. One that I’m actively exploring these days on the road. Why do I freak out over losing my job when i have a solid experience set reassuring me that I can find another? Why do I get a tightness in my chest or panic slightly every time I pay bills or make a big-ticket purchase? Why can’t I keep my emotions in check when thinking about or acting on money choices? Why did money matters become a rift between friends or family in the past?
I’ve recently realized most of my motivation in life thus far has come from sheer fear of not having money. Some context: I’m a small-town gal, my family growing up was lower-middle class (middle class in PA). My dad is an honorable, hard-working, blue-collar welder for a family-owned company that handles transportation contracts, and my mom has worked as a stay-at-home mom/ Mary Kay lady and recently got her credentials to go back to work selling financial products for small local banks. Let’s just say, because I don’t want to over-share our family politics, that we always had enough but there were plenty of underlying stresses in our house regarding financial decisions.
Fear, Fear and More Fear.
Little overachiever Megan wasn’t quite sure where money was going to come from for college, so with the help of an amazing teacher, (thank you, Mrs. Williams) She ended up finding a great university, getting big scholarships, grants, doing work study and working 3 jobs in college to fund her education.
A college costing around 50K a year ain’t no joke, and going from small-town PA to a city like LA where college costs can be handled by the wealthy top 2% with a personal check, my idea of what money really was shifted drastically. Whoa, there’s a ton out there and I sure don’t have any of it. Not everyone has this kind of intense culture shock regarding what is considered a normal lifestyle and expectation for monetary earnings. Only now do I consider myself lucky that I’ve had this kind of perspective change. For many years, this experience made me feel like like I didn’t have enough, I wasn’t worth anything, and I was going to somehow end up really poor and struggling my whole life.
I started working, and found out how big-city people take advantage of young, small-town girls and make them work for less than they are worth, over and over again. Tired of being underpaid, I started to fight. I researched, I negotiated, I countered, I got multiple offers, I trained hard, and I left when I felt like I was underpaid. I climbed the ladder, I leveraged job titles, and built up my portfolio of work and client list. This took about 10 years of making some bad choices, burning some bridges :\, working too hard, and finally, kinda learning the ropes and making enough of a resume and name for myself that I was paid my market value. Sort of. Ladies are still underpaid, y’all.
Once I got to a place where I realized I had money, significant savings, the ability to buy things when I wanted without thinking too much, and actually had the ability to get a job if I lost or left the one I had, money ideas and values shifted again.
Crap, the Motivation of Fear Is gone. Time to Do Something Different.
Oh no, I think I lost the carrot that was dangling in front of me to make me work so damn hard. Now what? What will move me when the fear isn’t there anymore?
I think I may have found new motivation on this trip regarding my “What am I doing here” post. So, I’m proud of the small return on investment so far. Now that you have some context that I didn’t win the lottery, come from a rich family or find a money tree, I’ll tell you and probably bore you, with my bulleted solutions and motivations below.
Getting to the Point, Here are the Basics
I Sold All of My Crap
Around Christmas, I decided to move from LA, leaving everything behind without knowing if I’d be back. I may be doing a future post regarding my reasons in full, let me know if it’s something you’d like to read.
I meticulously went through everything I owned: furniture, electronics, clothes, accessories, decorations, art supplies, kitchen appliances, plants, books, activities gear. You name it, I photographed it, described it and sold it on Craigslist. What was left over, I gave away to friends or donated to Salvation Army. I went from having a 2 bedroom apartment full of stuff accumulated over 10 years, to filling my small 2-door Scion with clothes, journals, and pet supplies.
Through this process, I realized I’m a bit of a hoarder, part of my addictive personality turned into buying things. It wasn’t completely out-of-control, and honestly, most people would look at it and think it’s totally normal, but my relationship with things was out of whack.
I noticed that I was worried about organizing, cleaning, and caring for my things rather than I was living my life. I was researching new things I wanted and spending too much time on thinking about it. Lame.
You have look at yourself really honestly when faced with all of your belongings in front of you. Did I actually spend that much on a waffle maker that I never use? When was I really going to use that sewing machine? How did I accumulate so much in 10 years? I think another ROI point is that after going through this process, and living out of a carry-on sized suitcase, it became perfectly clear that I don’t need as much as I had and will look at purchases differently going forward.
All of the need to do this has been simmering in my mind for years. With my job, I’m well aware that we (I say “we” with a guilty conscience considering my role in marketing.) create false need. Capitalism runs on people buying shit we don’t actually require.
I’ve been following start-ups like NeighborGoods who try to encourage people to borrow and swap rather than buy more, and I have done clothing swaps with girlfriends so we don’t feel the impulse to buy more to look cute and feel good.
I’ve been fascinated with groups putting out content like this video that basically says we only use 1% of the stuff we buy and companies are capitalizing on this by selling us more space to put our stuff. Closet space has never been in more demand, homes kept getting bigger until just last year, and the storage industry is booming. Shows like Hoarders never run out of people with what I call Stuff Addiction. The stats are horrifying and I can honestly say, I too, bought the American dream. Literally.
I am Investing All of my Savings, like all of it, retirement and everything with no nest egg to start over.
This is a scary one. I can say I am still relatively young and don’t have a family to support; it’s still a liberated time in my life. It was a conscious choice to do this before I have other responsibilities and I’m just betting on myself that I can earn more in the future, this time hopefully with a new perspective on how to handle my money more wisely.
Something shifted inside me as I was watching the boomer generation’s savings melt away with the great recession. The idea that we can put our life’s work into the market and assume its just going to keep growing and growing doesn’t really make sense to me anymore. It seems like a broken model. I just watched the stock market peak again for no other reason than Wall Street likes to gamble with government-backed money and it scared the tar out of me. My secret fear is that I could honestly foresee money becoming worthless, and I guess I wanted some experiences to show for my work; rather than put it someplace and hope it grows, especially when there are Ivy League ibankers with big entitlement complexes playing roulette with my savings.
Privatization of investment opens a crap ton of risk. I worked with a start-up that was attempting to educate the masses that mutual funds, crappy products marketed by big banks, are terrible investments because of all of the hidden fees. Basically, in the late 70’s, after the 401K legislation was pushed through by two big corporate giants (Xerox & Kodak) that was created as tax shelters for the rich, banks rushed in to capitalize on Main Streets need to save for retirement. Companies used to be loyal to employees and make sure pensions were around when they ended their career run, but they pushed the responsibility to the everyman who had no idea how the markets worked. Now we are looking at people working into their 80’s because they trusted some idiot, overpaid fund manager to watch their savings while rich kids fresh from university got to gamble with it. I don’t buy it anymore. I’m not saying this is everyone who works in Wall Street, but I’ve certainly seen a trend.
I don’t have the solution for what I’ll do with future savings and investment yet, but you better believe I’ll be researching the shit out of it.
I Realized that I Could Freelance on the Road
Geez, how did I miss this one for so long? I’m lucky enough to have a job that if I want, I can work from anywhere where I can set up my laptop with an internet connection, which is like, 5 of 6 hostels in South America.
Writers, illustrators, accountants, developers, analysts, lawyers and honestly, a lot of desk jobs can do this. Some companies are giving people more of a work/life balance allowing them to work off-site as long as they complete projects and can be available during hours from home with email, teleconferencing and other such technologies like hooking up to the cloud. After all, most of us move nonexistent pixels around the digital ether for work these days.
I intentionally and luckily don’t work too much, because I’m really here to just try to be present and experience things, but if I do feel like there is a project worth taking, LA/NY freelance rates go a long way with S. American cost of living (like 20-40 dollars a day living really comfortably)
This does makes the whole “spending my life savings” a bit more palatable when I’m having a panic attack about watching my money wane. I can earn more.
I Made a Conscious Effort to Save Money and I Started Buying Less.
That’s really it. I tried to make decisions that were more for the long run than my immediate happiness. It’s really tough to do but I tried to live below my means.
This was really important because I started losing touch with how I was spending money. I totally get how people start what I like to call Leveling Up: leveraging debt, buying nicer cars, clothes, and toys when you can. I’ve done it for years. You used to buy this brand and now you can all of a sudden buy one that cost twice as much and look good doing it. You worked hard, you deserve it. It becomes a bit of a cycle. This is especially true in LA where people do look at you differently when you have nice things and there is an expectation to drive a Mercedes and have a Louis Vuitton handbag whether you can afford it or not.
Play any points-based video game where the opponents get tougher and the points mean less the more you play, and you can see how you can get trapped or addicted to playing the game. (Yes, I’m a nerd and had a year in college where I played Kingdom Hearts)
Another great way to save money was that I started eating in and cooking more. This helps with roommates or a boyfriend because lets be honest, cooking alone sucks and the cleanup is even worse; it’s really just sad. I tried to reach out to cook with people and turns out you eat healthier, consume less, and save some money.
I’m Using my Entire Tax Refund
Shout out to Andy Kamman. I have a great accountant. He’s amazing, honest, and works really hard to make sure that the government gets their share but you don’t over pay yours. I used to do my own, but after missing a lot of key deductions, the ROI of having a sound money guy is amazing. He even did them totally digitally for me (no in person meetings) To be fair, I’m pretty organized and tech savvy, and my mom may have forwarded one paper W2, but he really worked with me to make sure I got some of my hard earned money back even though I was 5000 miles away.
There are valid discussions about whether you should just pay less through the year and invest it yourself OR you overpay the government every paycheck and get a big chunk back at the end. I opt for the big chunk because I just don’t have the self control to not spend it nor do I know how to invest it better myself.
I Got Rid of a Lot of Debt
Borrowed money, I’m guessing, is a lot of the reason people don’t travel. They can’t get away from the choking debt cycle. Here’s my advice: stop borrowing more and pay off the loans you have. Our national deficit is ridiculous. Ridiculous.
I consolidated student loans, and paid more than they asked me to pay each time I could, so I’m ahead on most of them. I researched rates, I paid my credit cards off at the end of the month so I wasn’t paying finance fees.
For this trip I deferred some of the loans I have like some of the student loans with Sallie Mae so they didn’t stress me out while I was on the road.
Also, for many years, like 8, I drove a 1990 Mitsubishi Mirage in Los Angeles. Yes, in the land of cars, I drove a beater. It cost me $2000, cash. Then I got a car loan after I totaled it, but geez. I wish I still had that thing. Fancy? No. Did it have a good stereo system? No. But it totally got me from point A to B and had incredible gas milage. Anywho, I’ve regretted having a car loan, but I still tried to buy a reasonable car like a Scion rather than a BMW. I put 50% down and have small payments.
In the End, Here’s How I Could do this trip:
I worked really, really hard for 18 years to be able to make what I did, save what I did and have the ability to do this. I took on freelance while I was working full-time, I actively sought out clients and new job opportunities when old jobs became dead-ends, I trained on software, I took it upon myself to learn everywhere I worked, I networked (hate that word) and stayed in touch with people. I treated others with respect and did the best I could every day (except Monday mornings) Finally, I sold things, I tried to be responsible with loans, I lived below my means, I continue to work. Now I have options and savings.
That said, it wasn’t easy, and I freak out a little bit everyday thinking that I’ll have nothing to come back to when I return… But as I said, since I started listening to myself a little, I notice doors open in ways I just can’t explain or really fathom.
You may not have a pile of money you are sitting on right now or feel like you have the ability or options to do the same, which can feel pretty lame. Fair enough. But I do believe that if there is a will there is a way. Yes, I used a silly cliche; they are true a lot of the time. The way I see it at the end of the day, if you decide you want to do something, you figure out how, and you make it happen. You put your energy and resources towards it and you find ways to do it. You make tough life choices and changes without excuses. It might not be today or tomorrow, but if you really want different results in life, do things differently and make it happen. (ok I’m off the soapbox :))
There are lots of stories like mine and I shall link them below.
There are tons of other ways fellow travelers have funded their trips using volunteer opportunities, airline points, working abroad and discount deal sites and I’d be happy to provide you resources in a later post.
I’d like to do a follow up post on how I keep costs low: negotiate, research before I book, don’t buy expensive tours or stay in nice hotels. Interested?
I have to be honest, it’s strange writing this because I still have a bit of guilt regarding this trip, like, “There are better things I could invest in, I’m surrounded by poverty where people can’t even see their own country, or Who do I think I am to be gallivanting across the world like I’m some kind of spoiled brat?” I realize that my readers, my friends are from all walks of life: Friends from international pueblos, small-town PA dwellers, mid-westerners, or city kids with trust funds. Everyone’s means, experience, and association is different with regards to money. I only wrote down my own personal experience of how I’ve tried to manage my personal relationship with money in the healthiest way I could, and how I finally decided to make this happen with every means I had available.
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