Recently, I posed a question to our readers: Do you think we spent more money while traveling or living in Washington, DC?
My original intention for this follow-up post was to disprove a theory that I continuously heard prior to and throughout our trip: that full-time travel is expensive and beyond one’s reach. Since I acted as CFO during our RTW and have continued that role post-trip, I always know exactly how we spend our money and how the cost of living in DC compares to full-time travel. In this post, I wanted to point to the numbers and say, “See, you’re all wrong!” But many people who voted in the poll must have sensed my angle, because 71% of respondents voted that it’s more expensive to live in DC than travel full-time. Yes, it is true, or at least it is for us. DC is an expensive city to live in, but how does a stationary lifestyle compare to that of a modern-day nomad who is paying for tours, airfare and meals at restaurants?
I’ll answer that question with our pre- and post-trip data. The numbers may surprise you, but I hope they also prove a few things:
- A nomadic lifestyle doesn’t have to break the bank
- It’s possible to save money even while living in an expensive city
- Challenging the norm isn’t a sure-fire way to ruin your life
Our decision to travel the world two and a half years ago made for the most unforgettable experience of our lives. While the payoffs are great, we spent nearly two years doing serious prep work and the trip did, of course, cost years of savings.
Now that you know that living in Washington, DC, costs us more money per person per day than to travel around the world for 14 months, let’s take a look at the hard numbers.
Comparing our average costs
Our daily average on the road varied. In Iceland, we shelled out more than $110 per person per day. The exchange rate wasn’t in our favor, our 4WD rental wasn’t cheap and the price of two hostel beds in a dorm-style room was often more than a night at the Holiday Inn in NYC. Compare that to Singapore, another expensive country to visit, where we were actually paying less than $25 each per day. We Couchsurfed our whole week there, took public transportation everywhere and attended free events and exhibits.
As you can see, our travel style adapted to what was accessible and how we wanted to explore each country. But the average of our daily expenses abroad was still lower than at home. A real test in affordability is to compare our at-home average with our loaded travel average.
What’s a loaded average? If an at-home average is a sesame seed bagel, a loaded average is like an everything bagel. This loaded average includes:
- Expenses for the trip prior to leaving the United States (visas; vaccinations; registration fees, like workaway.info membership; travel medical insurance; and pre-trip gear, clothes and devices)
For a little insight, this includes nearly $3,000 in copays, consultation fees, anti-malarials, shots (yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis), first aid kit supplies and 14 months of travel medical insurance.
- Money spent in-country (food, accommodations, sights, tours, splurge activities, etc.)
- Domestic and international transportation
- Additional costs while traveling (annual credit card fee, VPN renewal fee, domain renewal for our website, etc.)
- Unanticipated expenses on the road (replacement clothes, external hard drive, new camera lens, adding passport pages, etc.)
This stuff isn’t cheap. We’re talking $82 per person for additional passport pages, which we later found out can be inserted for free when you apply for or renew your passport (you must request them). Thanks, America.
You may be wondering why we paid so much in medical fees, and that’s because some vaccinations – of course the most expensive ones – weren’t covered by our insurance. We care about our well-being, so getting these shots was a must for us. Through research, we found that they were available in London or at the Red Cross in Bangkok, but it wasn’t as easy as showing up, getting a shot and moving on. Japanese encephalitis, for example, is a two-dose series that must be spaced 28 days apart. Staying in one location for a month while we waited for the second shot of the series didn’t sound ideal. Before our departure, we thought we wanted to be on the move weekly. And what if we had an adverse reaction to the shot? We still had employee-sponsored medical insurance at home that would cover us should something happen, but we wouldn’t have the same insurance after leaving. These concerns made us decide against getting our vaccinations abroad.
Hindsight being 20/20, we would absolutely get the vaccines abroad knowing what we know now. We were in Thailand for a month anyway. What’s the harm in getting the first shot in Bangkok, traveling around the country for a few weeks, then heading back to Bangkok for the second shot? The city is an international hub, so after getting the second shot we could have easily moved on to our next destination. Well, now we know (and recommend this course of action for others as well).
Now that you have a better sense of the expenses that went into our everything bagel, you can better appreciate the total. Drum roll pleeeease. Our loaded average cost per person, per day to travel through Europe, Africa and Asia for 14 months came to $58.77.
How does that compare to what we currently spend living in DC? You may remember from past posts that we live minimally now and are happy with this lifestyle change. A fringe benefit to owning less “stuff” is that our apartment feels cleaner and less cluttered and contains very few items that we don’t use. The decorations we have on our walls are artistic images we took in Russia, Myanmar and other countries we visited. We buy only what we need, and that goes for personal and household items as well as food. Our cabinets aren’t overstocked with products we’ll forget we have in four months. The fridge contains only what we’ll eat this week, which also helps us eat fresh and healthier food. I can count on one hand the amount of times per month when we eat out at a restaurant.
We don’t live outside of the city, so we do pay more in monthly rent for the location. But on the flip side, we save a ton of money on transportation costs because we don’t own a car and therefore walk, run or take public transportation around town. We only rent a car if we’re going on vacation.
These are the choices we make so we can do the things that some people think you need to win the lottery to afford. We’re spending less on a daily basis than we used to pre-trip, and likely less than most people our age (given our minimalistic lifestyle).
So what does it cost us for the privilege to live and work in the nation’s capital? Before I get to that, I want to mention that the cost also includes incidentals, medical expenses, monthly bills, vacation expenses (Las Vegas, Hawaii, Florida, New England road trips, among others), and a ton of craft beer. Now that that is out of the way, we’re spending $64.86 per person per day.
That’s an approximately $6 difference between those two daily averages. That equates to about $4,500 for one calendar year for both of us.
It’s not much, right? Maybe more time in Europe and less time in Asia would have brought those numbers closer together. Perhaps fewer Couchsurfing experiences and more upgrades from hostels to hotels would bridge the gap. On the other hand, if we owned a car, lived in a two-bedroom apartment or ate out more frequently, the difference would be pushed even higher.
In the end, the money you spend – and save – is based on the choices you consciously make. No one is forcing you to buy a top-of-the-line cable TV bundle, the latest iPhone or a monthly gym membership. And no one is forcing us not to. If you want to save money – for travel, to buy a new car, to invest, whatever – prioritize your goals and the actions that will move you closer to those goals. Adding thousands of dollars to your savings account each year may not require a secondary or tertiary income, but an evaluation and redirection of your current spending habits.
If you want to learn the tricks we used to save money and create a budget for our RTW trip, check out our book, Create Your Escape.