Creating a Travel Budget Occasional Nomads Style

(Photo credit: Scott Graham/Unsplash)

We continue to dream and plan for travel in spite of not knowing what the future holds. While our first post-pandemic trip won’t be until spring of next year, doing what we can to be ready remains our primary focus. Since we are not those people who can take out their checkbook or credit card and pay for everything without a thought, we save, save, save and have already started work on setting up a budget for next year’s travels. There are many pieces of a travel budget: lodging, transportation (getting there and back, on the ground, car rentals, etc.), dining, activities, tours, and other things as well, and it takes time and thought to get it right

The first thing we do whenever we create a travel budget is to think very carefully about the maximum we know we can save and have on hand before traveling along with the maximum we want to spend. Both numbers help us set our goals and budget parameters. Once we’ve figured them out we figure out the purpose of the trip and what we’d like to do. Are there things we’ve always dreamed of doing and this is our chance? Or, are we just looking forward to spending time with family members. Are we willing to try something new and/or different? What are things we won’t budge on? Where we stay, how we travel, and so forth are things that will strongly affect our planning and the budget for each trip. The overall goal is to make sure what we want to do matches what we can save, and that Brett and I are on the same page for what’s achievable.

The most important thing we keep in mind as we go along is: be realistic. While we’d love to fly first class or stay in 5-star hotels, we know that’s not usually possible, and we go with what we know we can afford and what pieces of the budget cost rather than what we’d like to do. We always strive to come in under the maximum amount we’ve allowed for a trip while getting the biggest bang for our dollars, but that’s only possible if we have figured costs accurately, and are honest with ourselves about costs. We know it’s possible to upgrade in one area if we can save in another.

Then it’s time to research, research, research. I look at a variety of flight schedules, airlines, and costs balancing upgrades with perks (i.e. saving on checked luggage costs and comfort for long flights versus lower cost for main cabin) to get an upper limit of what our flight will cost. If we’re driving I research mileage and cost of gasoline. I search for what lodging will cost at different levels of service, check Airbnb, VRBO, hotel sites (, Trivago, etc.) and other travel sites to see what’s possible and where things are located. For dining costs I generally use TripAdvisor recommendations and restaurant reviews; we’ve always found great, low-cost places to eat through their site. Cooking for ourselves always saves money, but we always enjoy eating out now and again. If we’re staying in a hotel we try to find ones that offer a free breakfast if possible (although some of those are pretty pathetic) and allow us to have some (simple) meals in our room. We also check how easy it is to get around – is there good public transportation available and what does that cost? Can we do more if we rent a car? How walkable is the area?

It’s not unusual to discover that what we’d like to do and the maximum we want to spend are not a good fit. That means we either have to adjust our wants or increase our maximum. We’ve done both, either giving up some things or downsizing our wants, or deciding we weren’t going to budge on some items and increasing the upper limit of our budget and finding ways to save more.

The very first budget item we focus on is our upper limit for lodging. That amount is determined by how long are we are staying somewhere, what sort of accommodation we want or need (hotel or our own apartment). We also think about any certain location we want to be near and then how far away from that location we are willing to stay. That is, do we want to stay in the center of things or are we willing to stay a little further out to possibly save? In Japan, for example, we always try to find lodging near our son’s home that has room for the grandkids to sleep over, something that affects the cost of our lodging there.

Are we driving, taking a bus or train, or flying? For now, from Hawaii, it’s always flying, so we look at things like the length of the flight, the schedule, layovers, and do we think we need or want more legroom? Are we willing to pay more for a shorter and/or more convenient travel time? What are the charges for luggage? Weight limits for luggage? Will we need to rent a car at our destination or can we use public transportation? Once we’ve researched all the options, figured out costs and times, we set a realistic upper limit for what we are willing to spend for transportation costs and then keep our fingers crossed we find a great fare sale.

Using convenience stores for prepared foods is one of the ways we save on dining costs in Japan.

Food is one of the easiest parts of the budget to figure out. We generally start with a dollar amount based on what we spend on food at home each month and then add anywhere from half again to double the amount depending on whether we’ll be cooking our own meals or mostly eating out. This always seems like so much at first, but having an adequate amount for eating is crucial, especially if we know we will be eating in restaurants, even only occasionally, or don’t know what food shopping opportunities await us. Food costs also require that we think carefully in advance about what part of the travel experience we want dining out to be and if there are special places or dishes we want to try in the location(s) we are going to.

When setting up the activities we many want to do we consider whether we’re going to want to do a lot of sightseeing, explore on our own or possibly take a tour, maybe go to a concert or visit a museum, or whether we’d like to take a class. Or, do we just want to relax. We enjoy taking walking tours, free if possible, and the classes we’ve tried have been great experiences and worth the cost.

Once we have done our research, set the upper limits of different sections of the budget as well as what we’re willing to pay, we work with the information we have gathered and start filling in the blanks. We start looking for deals and where trade-offs can be made. These need to be carefully considered (for example, we almost always go for a more comfortable flight as we’ve found it makes a difference in the whole experience for us). The further out we can book or make reservations, the better the deals or price we usually can find. I used to book air travel early, but these days with airlines making so many changes and so many unknowns booking closer to travel seems to be the better and safer choice even though it may cost more.

We always build in a cushion for emergencies. Always. Besides buying travel insurance, we add an additional 10% – 15% of our total budget as a cushion for emergencies or other contingencies. If it turns out we don’t use our emergency cushion then it goes right back into travel savings. Same for any money we save and don’t spend on a trip.

Brett tracks our spending daily when we travel in a journal.

The most important part of our travel budget? Keeping track of what we spend as we go along, even before we set out on your travels. We tracked every single penny when we were on our Big Adventure because it was critical we stayed at or under our budget. Brett kept a daily log of what we did and what we spent, we saved receipts for everything, and tracked our spending every day. The biggest benefit of doing this was that we could see when we needed to cut back or when we could splurge a bit and where.


Budget Challenge: Grocery Shopping on Kaua’i

Brett and I have a standing challenge whenever we go food shopping: buy what we need but try to stay under budget if possible so there’s something leftover to put into the travel savings. Between Walmart, Costco, Safeway or Big Save Market, and the weekly farmers’ market we have a wide selection of places to shop, but staying within our budget can be difficult because prices here can be high, sometimes a good deal higher, than they are in most places on the mainland. We’re very good at knowing the difference between a need and a want though, and telling ourselves “no” whenever we have to. We shop for groceries three times a month, weekly if you count our Wednesday trips to the farmers’ market, and we try very hard to not have to go to any store in-between shopping trip if at all possible. We no longer do “big shops” or stock ups because we don’t have the storage space like we did in the past nor do we like spending such vast sums.

Last week was a good week for us, shopping wise. We had budgeted $160 for the week, but spent only $128.80, and put $31.20 into our travel savings ($11.20 into the change/$1 bill jar and an additional $20 bill for good measure). Here’s how we did it:

We ALWAYS shop with a list, and by the time we make it to the store it usually looks like the one above. The circled items are the items that made the final cut; others were deemed either not necessary or not necessary now and were added to this week’s list. Two of the circled items on the Costco side did not get purchased: sparkling water and a beach towel ($9.99 at Costco). Costco had no affordable choices for sparkling water, and although we had the funds for a beach towel we decided it could wait. It will eventually need to be purchased and will go on a list in the future.

We spent exactly $41 at Walmart, and got everything on our list except for soba noodles and Yoshida (teriyaki) sauce, neither of which they had. We couldn’t find suitable substitutes there for either so decided to look for those items at Safeway, which was going to be our last stop of the day.

Our Costco list ended up being quite short, but we didn’t need much. We spent $50.10 there and now have enough dental floss for months to come (it was on sale this month). It’s sort of strange to leave Costco with so few things these days – when we lived here before any trip to Costco meant a cart filled to overflowing.

We sometimes stop at Safeway because it’s pretty much right next door to Costco and on our way home. Along with the head of lettuce and the big locally-grown tomato for our hamburgers we also found the brand of soba we like and some teriyaki sauce that worked for us. The soba cost more than it usually does at Walmart, but the teriyaki sauce was on sale and cost less so it evened out. Still, we spent $17.70 total for these four items, which is a lot and a good indicator of why we don’t regularly shop at Safeway here. Milk was also on our list but they didn’t have what we were looking for (a quart of 1%), and we decided we didn’t need it this week after all.

We budget $20 every week for the farmers’ market, and this past week spent every bit of it on a big bunch of bananas, two huge papayas, a large dragonfruit, three cucumbers, green beans, green onions, and a head of cabbage. 

We will go shopping again tomorrow, but with a smaller allotment than last week, and then go once again next week. Both shopping trips will pose additional challenges as we need to make sure we shop smartly to get ourselves through a three week stretch before our next piece of income rolls in again. That’s a long time to go without shopping, but we have plenty of protein on hand (meat, chicken, and fish) for the two of us, a good supply of other pantry staples, and along with the produce from the farmers’ market every week we should make it – fingers are crossed!

(If you have any questions about individual prices here for items we bought, let me know in the comments and I’ll look them up.)

Closing Out the Books for March 2020

Before we suddenly had to leave Japan, we were on track to have a very good month, budget-wise. Our daily spending average on the day we left Japan was $20.50/day, nearly $4 below the very minimal spending limit we had given ourselves for the month of $24/day. We had a good supply of food on hand to get us through the rest of the month and until our departure in April (including those five jars of peanut butter I carried home on my own one day!). Our daily spending average for our entire time in Japan, beginning when we arrived in January, was $28.00/day, just $4 over our budget, and we were on track to get it down to $24/day.

Those numbers were partially the result of the pandemic slowdown in Tokyo which stopped many of our plans and kept us from spending. However, they also show that with careful budgeting, taking advantage of lower-cost benefits in the area (for us, that was the commissary or other military facilities), exploring local or neighborhood attractions, and watching and tracking spending carefully, it’s possible to live in an expensive location like Tokyo on less and still have a good time. We discovered we didn’t have to visit distant or famous locations in the city to find interesting and affordable things to do, or beautiful things to see, that there was plenty of all that right in our own neighborhood.

We are ending March though with a daily spending average of $42.94/day, the result of having to stock up on food for a long quarantine after our arrival back on Kaua’i, not just for us but for YaYu as well. We did a big food shopping at Costco the day we arrived, spent some more at Big Save Market the day after, and have picked up a few more things at the Princeville Foodland that we weren’t able to find earlier or forgot to buy (things like baking soda, green onions, carrots, ice cream, and toilet paper). We have enough though to get us through the next 11 days before we move over to our apartment. Many of the things we bought are pantry staples that will move with us and get us started in our new residence (the apartment actually has a pantry too!).

Although we won’t be traveling again for a long while, Brett is going to continue to maintain our daily spending journal, and I plan to continue reporting on our spending each month, especially since the cost of living in Hawai’i is so different than it is back on the mainland. Our stay in Japan was good preparation for us here as it can also be an expensive location. We’re going to continue much as we did in Japan, especially doing our food shopping once a week using a list made off of a weekly menu. We’re giving ourselves a daily budget of $20/day for food and gasoline beginning in April. It’s not very much but I think we’ll be able to manage with careful menu planning and shopping. Our car currently gets around 35/mpg so there’s lots of potential for saving when it comes to gasoline purchases (prices are currently low for Kaua’i too – gas at Costco is just $2.55/gallon right now), and with current stay-at-home orders we won’t be going out much anyway. We won’t be eating out any time soon as all restaurants on the island are closed, and there is no date scheduled for reopening (hotels are not expected to reopen until May 20 at the earliest). None of us need any new clothes either.

However, we will be spending quite a bit in the next two weeks to get ourselves ready to move into our new place, but those costs will be covered by savings. We have nothing here – no dishes, cookware, cutlery, utensils,, linens, furniture . . . nothing. Almost all stores on the island are closed, but there are enough open that we should be able to get some essentials to get us started (a sofa, a bed, a TV, towels, sheets, kitchen linens, a dish drainer, trash cans, some bakeware and a couple of pans for cooking). We will be shopping for those items with a list we have been putting together so we don’t overspend. 

Our life is going to be an extremely simple one for a while, at least until our shipment arrives from Portland, whenever that may be. However, if Brett and I learned nothing else while we were traveling it was how to live the good life on less by making sure we tracked our spending every day. We’ve got this.

Closing Out the Books for February 2020

Brett’s budget journals aren’t as pretty as this one, but he gets everything in there to keep us on track. Receipts are taped in, the daily average for the month is computed (as well as our average for the location), and steps taken and stairs climbed that day are noted as well. It’s an ingrained habit now, something he’ll continue to do long after we stop traveling.

We did OK in February. Not great, but not bad either. Our daily spending average for the month of February was $39/day; we ended the month with an average of $33.91. We can live with that.

Our commissary shop plus two trips to the mini-mart at Hardy Barracks and the New Sanno are a big reason for the elevated average last month, but I’m happy to report that we have lots of food on hand, probably a little more than three weeks’ worth. Our freezer is stuffed full of food! We also picked up extra supplies at Tokyu and at Kaldi Coffee Farm (cheese, peanut butter and oatmeal) this month. We have sufficient supplies of paper products to get us through the rest of our stay. We want to have plenty on hand if the virus situation here takes a turn for the worse.

March may or may not be a challenge. It’s a 31-day month, and there is nothing remaining out of the $400 we brought along for commissary shopping, so we’re going to have to stay within our limit of ¥40,000 for the month for food. That’s only around $12/day for food for the two of us. Our monthly budget of ¥80,000 only gives us about $24/day, our lowest budget amount since we began traveling. This is where our food stockpile will come in handy – when those items are gradually added back in over the next few weeks we should be OK. As we won’t be traveling daily to pick up the grandkids or going out sightseeing our transportation costs will be lower as well. We’ve done much better than expected at keeping our dining out expenses well below ¥3000 per week, and that will continue too. We do have one big event coming up at the end of the month – our 41st anniversary – but we haven’t decided yet what or if we’ll be doing (if anything) for that special event.

So, here we go again, with fingers crossed!

Closing Out the Books for January 2020

With two of our girls with us in Portland until the day before we left, nine days on Kaua’i, our usual travel day expenses, and then settling in once we got to Tokyo, we assumed we would go w-a-y over our daily spending average in January.

But that didn’t happen. We ended up with a daily spending average of $34.94, just under our $35/day limit.

Looking back, YaYu and WenYu helped us eat down all the food we had remaining in our Portland Airbnb and we spent very little during those final 10 days in Portland. We stuck to our pre-determined spending limits while we were on Kaua’i and left with cash in our wallets. Other than a couple of cups of coffee and two breakfast sandwiches, we bought nothing on our travel days and let our hotel or the airlines feed us. And, we “paid” ourselves upfront for a month when we arrived in Japan, a pre-determined amount of 80,000 yen, instead of using our debit card over and over. Because of that, we have carefully watched our spending so we don’t run out before our next “payday.” Our son and DIL have helped with a few expenses, such as our transportation from Narita airport, some local travel expenses, and a few meals at their home. Those have helped our bottom line as well.

We ended January with a total of ¥42,800 on hand out of our original ¥80,000 (¥23,000 for groceries, ¥10,800 for dining out, and ¥9,000 for miscellaneous expenses). We added $400 to that for commissary/exchange shopping which we did this past Saturday, February 1 (we have $146 of that remaining). There is zero yen left in the envelope for transportation but our PASMO cards still have over ¥4,000 on them which should last us for a while. We will replenish our yen supply again on the 15th of this month, withdrawing another ¥80,000 and dividing it among the envelopes.

Based on the current exchange rate, ¥80,000 equals around $740 (which means $60 gets left in our bank account). With the additional $400 in U.S. dollars we added in, we have a total of $1140 available for the month of February. Divided by 29 days, that’s an average of a little over $39/day for the month. However, the average will drop to around $24/day in March, so we’re challenging ourselves to keep our spending average as low as possible to get ready for that. Once again, fingers crossed!

Closing Out the Books for December and the Year

We knew there was no way we were going to be able to stay on or under budget during December and in that respect, we were correct. We ended the month with a daily spending average of $47.34, back near our $50/day limit versus staying close to the current $35/day limit. Most of what was spent this past month was for food, lots and lots of food. We’ve eaten well but not extravagantly, and I’m not sure where we could have cut back – there’s been no waste, and we bought little to no junk food or sweets either. Other than a very few items, like Brett’s beard trimmer, his new carry-on bag, and a couple of books for me, there’s been no buying things other than travel supplies and provisions. Our daily spending average is what it is – it just costs more to feed a family.

I also went back through all our spending in 2019 to see how we did over the span of 12 months. There were several months of under average spending (more than I thought), but of course there were several months where we ended up over our daily average. I added up how we did each month, whether we were over or under budget, and came up with a total of $848.96 over budget for the entire year. Divided by 12, that’s $70.75/month over what we had planned to spend.

I have mixed feelings about that number. I’m of course disappointed, but it’s also not as bad as both Brett and I imagined it might be. Our worst overspending occurred when we were in the U.S. because we tended to do “big shops” at places like Costco, and also spent extra on re-provisioning our travel supplies. Side trips, like the ones we took while we were in England or out to the Oregon coast this past summer, also drove our spending up as well. We bought and spent more than planned in India, but otherwise did not go crazy buying things or going out to eat frequently during the year, although they happened from time to time. We have no regrets about those experiences however. Some places we visited during the year turned out to be more expensive than we had estimated (Hong Kong, for example) but other places were as expected or even a bit less. In Japan and England, our two long stays, we started off spending over our monthly averages but over time we learned and adjusted, and by our final months in each place we had it down to below average.

Overall it was just an OK year, spending wise, not a great one or even a good one. We were able to cover the amounts we were over each month, and we don’t feel as if we wasted money on anything or any experience. The cost-of-living increases in our income this year will cover the extra per month if we repeat 2019’s spending patterns, but we know we can do better. Our goal for 2020 is to come in under average every month.

Closing Out the Books for September 2019

Worth every penny . . .

September was a very good month budget-wise. Well, it was until we got to the last two days of the month. Spending on just those two days blew up all our good work and we ended up with a higher put us above where we wanted to be, by a little over $5/day.

On September 29 we visited the nearby village of Broadway, and besides our usual stop for tea and scones, we also purchased a small gift for YaYu, and we picked up two bottles of gin at the Cotswolds Gin Distillery Shop. Specialty gin is not cheap, but it’s something we can’t get back in the U.S. and something we’re especially enjoying during our time here. At the very least, the two bottles we purchased (plus the one we later bought in Edinburgh) will be enough to get us through until the end of our stay in the United Kingdom. Anyway, our DSA before entering Broadway was $35.45, upon leaving the village it had jumped to $38.75.

The last day of September was our travel day up to Edinburgh. We bought a few snack items at the village shop the day before to have on hand on the way up and bought one bottle of water on the train. But, there was a Kiehl’s shop in King’s Cross, and since I needed to buy moisturizer anyway (I had planned to look for it next week in London) I went ahead and bought a jar at the station shop. We had a light lunch at King’s Cross (sandwich for Brett and Moroccan bowl for me) and a small dinner after we arrived in Edinburgh at an Indian restaurant just down the street from our apartment (which provided leftovers for next evening’s dinner). However, adding in our bus fare over to Moreton to catch the train and a taxi from the station to our apartment once we arrived, by the time that day finished our DSA for the month had climbed to $40.24. Ouch. It could have been a lot worse, but careful spending earlier in the month saved things from really getting out of hand.

Because of our visit to Edinburgh, we have started off the month of October with our DSA above where it should be (it’s currently just slightly over $38/day), although it is dropping quickly and we should be back to around $35/day or less by the time we leave for London at the end of the week. It will climb back over $35/day again while YaYu is here, but then we’ll have the rest of the month to bring it back down. With cold weather and rain in the forecast, we won’t be going out as much as we have been, and if we’re careful we should be ending the month at $35/day or a little below, right where we need to be.

Closing Out the Books for August

What’s left of my allotment of British pounds to get us through until the middle of the month (Brett has a bit more).

August was a very good month, spending-wise, and we ended with a daily spending average (DSA) of $31.52, $18.48 below our budget of $50/day. At one point our DSA was down to around $25, but a wonderful dinner at Higgins restaurant with our friend Joan just before we departed and expensive airport meals in Portland and Rekjavik brought the average back up a bit.

The biggest factor affecting our lower spending amount in August was that we stopped doing Big Shops. We made trips to Costco in May and late June/early July, and by the time we got to August we still had plenty of food on hand, and only needed to stop for a few grocery items now and again. Brett would like us to stop doing Big Shops all together now that it’s just the two of us, so we’ll be practicing smaller grocery runs while we’re here in England, not just to avoid spending so much but because we have very little storage space for food in the cottage. It’s not that we’ll never go to Costco in the future, but that we won’t buy as if we’re feeding a family of five anymore. There are an Aldi and Tesco in Moreton-in-Marsh, and our village’s small shop has a nice selection of items at very reasonable prices so we have a nice selection of places to buy affordable food while we’re here.

Locally raised and produced sausages and eggs from the Blockley market. The sausages were just £2.50 (~$3), and the half-dozen large, free-range organic eggs the same. A similar package of sausages would have cost anywhere from $6-$8 in Portland, if not more.

Beginning this month our DSA will be just $35/day. As of today, September 5, our DSA for September is $50.50, which includes our breakfast at the airport hotel, bus transportation to and from the airport to the hotel, two bottles of water on the train out to the Cotswolds (we were desperately parched), a small shopping trip to the village store to pick up a few things to get us started, and lunch yesterday at one of our village pubs. We might have spent more except our host left us a huge selection of goodies including cakes, bread, rolls, cookies (biscuits!), butter, milk, juice, coffee, wine, honey, chutney, fruit, chips, and chocolate bars. However, we don’t need to spend anything again until next week, when we’ll head over to Moreton-in-Marsh to get a few more things at Aldi and from the local cheesemonger’s which should take care of our food needs through next week or even the one after. We also plan to go to Chipping Camden at the end of next week and have afternoon tea after poking around a bit, and we want to stop in again at the pub as well. In other words, money will be spent but with a goal of staying within our limits overall.

Just a few of the things our gracious host left for us to get us started. There are too many carbs here for me, but Brett is happy.