Saving For Travel: It’s Not Just About the Money

(This article was originally posted on October 31, 2016, but because our recent budget changes I felt it was a good time for a re-post. A few minor updates have been made to the original.)

I only wish Brett and I had the kind of income where we could whip out our checkbook or charge card whenever we wanted to take a trip, and pay for it all, just like that. For us though travel takes planning, time and saving, saving, saving. All of our journeys are fully funded before we leave home.

However, saving money is only the start. Along with putting away funds we talk about: Where do we want to go and how much is it going to cost? Do we need to save $500? $1000? $5000? More? Is it doable? Realistic? Can we do it for less? When’s the best time to go? Where would we stay? How long can we afford to go away? What do we want to see or do when we’re there? And so forth . . .

That’s the thing about travel: Each trip is different and requires different things and costs a different amount. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to traveling – we bring our own desires and expectations when we hit the road, even within in the family, and the total cost of any trip is affected by those desires and expectations. Because we don’t have that bottomless checking account, Brett and I not only put money aside but take some extra steps in order to make the most of what we have and where we’re going.

Here are some ways we successfully save for our travels and make sure we get to go where we want, have the best time possible, and don’t bust our budget:

  • Our travel plans always start with us talking about places we’d like to visit and then making a mental list of places we’d like to go, whether we’ve been there before or they’ve been on our “someday” list. We’re not the most spontaneous people when it comes to travel, so we prioritize our list by starting with places and people we’d regret never getting to see down to locations we’ve always been curious about or that make sense to visit since we’ll already be in the area. We allow our list to change whenever new information comes up so that sometimes places we wanted to visit in the past can seem less important as time passes, and other places become more interesting. Some of our destinations, like Japan, are determined by family circumstance and always go to the top of the list. I love this part of travel planning though – dreams are always free ;-).
  • I thoroughly research what it would cost to travel to places. Brett usually leaves this step to me. It takes a while, but I find doing research for travel a LOT of fun, and I always learn lots of new information and pick up tips, even if we don’t end up going to someplace I’ve looked into. I try to figure out how much transportation will cost, as well as lodging, dining, and other expenses. Would it make more sense for us to stay in a hotel or use Airbnb if we go somewhere? Is there a peak season (and how can we avoid it if possible)? I love reading articles and stories about how to dine on a budget at our destination, or about a place where we may need to increase our budget because the food and experience are not to be missed. I love learning about all sorts of interesting places we might want to visit, from must-sees to maybes. I know that there are many people way more spontaneous than we are, and when they see a cheap airfare to somewhere they snap it up and go, or think nothing of hopping in their car and taking off. I’m enough of a nerd though that I’d rather do the research about spending our money on a trip, and figure out how to get the most bang for our bucks. Our income and budget sort of demand it as well.
  • After the research is done, we decide if we can realistically save enough to afford the trip. We make the final decision to go somewhere only if we can afford it. We’re not willing to break the bank and go into debt just to fulfill some fantasy or check off something on a bucket list. I would greatly love to take more tours through India, and Brett and I would like to visit one of the national parks in Botswana, but know now that these days both are way out of our price range (Botswana is way, way, way out) unless we saved for years and did nothing else. We focus on what’s realistic and doable.
  • We set a goal for saving. We like to use the SMART criteria whenever we make a goal, financial or otherwise: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. Rather than saying “Let’s save so we can go to Japan,” we tell ourselves that we need to save enough before [proposed travel date] to cover airfare and lodging for three of us as well as have enough for meals and other expenses. Can we have approximately half of that amount saved by [a certain date] to cover airfare if a good deal shows up? This is how we can place what we need and when in relation to other upcoming expenses, such as the girls’ college expenses, Christmas, etc. Once everything gets mapped out, and we decide it’s achievable, we go forward. If it’s not, we either adjust our goal or drop it. We typically set our goals and start planning more than a year in advance of any major travel though, giving ourselves plenty of time to tweak things as we go along.
  • We have a dedicated savings account for travel, whether we’re actively planning any travel or not. I believe it’s important to make dedicated travel savings a priority rather than a ‘leftover’ when it comes to budgeting. We “pay ourselves” first and put away a predesignated amount each month for travel. We add to our savings in other ways like adding what we save in our change/$1 bills jar (which adds around $800 per year to the account). If we can spend under our budget in any other area, like groceries or gasoline, for example, the difference goes into our travel savings – it’s an incentive to look for the best deals and be more conscious about saving. Rebates, refunds, rewards and gifts also go into travel savings. It adds up more quickly than you might think, and I never feel guilty or worried when we take any money out to cover travel expenses because that’s what it’s for. One more thing: with a dedicated travel savings fund we’re already miles ahead whenever we start thinking about going somewhere.
  • We stay motivated to save by giving ourselves reminders of our destination. Once we know when and where we’re going, we post pictures on the fridge, share books or articles about where we’re going, start Pinterest boards, and so forth. These ‘motivators’ can help keep our savings goals on track. They often help us decide between doing or buying something now versus putting away more for travel later. Even when our trip to the Grand Canyon was a mystery to everyone else, I still put up reminders about our trip in places that I saw frequently but that were hidden from Brett and the girls in order to stay motivated.
  • While we’re on the road, we track our spending every day. Brett maintains a daily spending log/diary so that we can see if we’re staying within our budget. If we’re over, we have a way to know why that’s happening and we can rein things in, but it also gives us a way to know if we can afford to possibly add something extra to our visit.

For us, successfully saving for travel involves more than just setting money aside. The extra steps we take help us not only be realistic about what we can afford but help keep us motivated to reach our goals and fulfill our travel dreams. Careful planning and saving along with close tracking of our spending provides us with a solid foundation to see and do what we want during our travels as well as the ability to dream about future journeys and make them a reality.

Budget Adjustments Coming Up

Brett and I had no idea when we started out last year how we would feel about traveling after a year, or whether we’d want to keep going, but it’s turned out that we enjoy our nomadic life and want to keep going. There’s still a lot of this world we want to experience. However, beginning next month there are two upcoming financial matters that are going to cause changes to our monthly budget and that will impact not only how we travel but potentially how much of it we can do for a while.

  • The out-of-pocket costs for all of my dental work this summer (three fillings, a new bridge, a tooth extraction, and teeth whitening) and Brett’s work (deep scalings) came to a whopping $3,590 – OUCH! We had both insurance and the means to pay the balance, but beginning next month we want to start replenishing our savings account by a few $100 per month.
  • The cost of attending Bryn Mawr this year will exceed the financial aid YaYu receives, and next month we will begin helping her meet her out-of-pocket costs for the spring term and on into her senior year (she is in her second year now). YaYu works very hard and is extremely frugal and has so far been able to meet her expenses, but what’s left in her savings after this fall’s payment won’t be enough to cover all of the spring term’s bill, so we will step in and make up the difference. Meiling graduated without debt, and WenYu will next year as well, but they both received much larger scholarships than YaYu and were also attending at the same time with siblings, which increased the amount of aid all three girls received. Beginning in the fall of 2020, YaYu will be our only student, and we expect the amount of aid she receives to drop (it already dropped some because Meiling is no longer attending college). So, we will begin setting aside an additional several hundreds of dollars a month for the next two years for her so that she will also be able to graduate without any debt, or at least with as little as possible. Our other children have let us know that although we didn’t provide them with similar financial support, this is the right thing for us to do now for YaYu.

These two items are going to most directly impact our on-the-road expenses, most especially the amount of money we have available for day-to-day spending. Currently, we budget for an average of $50/day, with funds covering not only food but all our local transportation costs and incidentals such as admission fees or other necessary items. Beginning in September, we will be reducing our daily spending average to $35/day. Our summer in Portland has been good training for this lower amount as we’ve tried to keep our average about there (not all that successfully, but we’re getting there – it’s currently under $25/day for August). Thankfully housing during our stay in England is already paid for as are the overnight stay at Heathrow, our lodgings in Edinburg, our train fare out to the Cotswolds from London, two tours we are taking in London, and lodging for an overnight stay in Oxford during YaYu’s visit in October. We know though we are going to have to be very, very careful with and mindful of every penny we spend in England.

Our belt will also have to be tightened a bit more when we arrive in Japan in January of next year because the cost for our housing there will be more expensive than it was before thanks to the current exchange rate, and we will be paying rent month by month rather than ahead of time. If Brett gets the cultural activities visa I can work part-time which will help our bottom line, but if our stay is only for three months finances will be quite tight. We’re not sure yet what we’ll have available for our daily spending because we don’t know what the exchange rate will be, but we know it will be less than $35. We’ve already decided that we won’t make as many outings as we did during our stay earlier this year, and we’ll focus more on spending time with our son and family and helping care for our grandchildren. Our up-front transportation costs have already been covered, but we still don’t know at this time when we will need to purchase fares to leave Japan or to where. If the lower daily amount is unsustainable we will have to lessen the amounts we’re reimbursing our savings and setting aside for YaYu, but we’re hopeful we’ll be able to manage on less.

So, we’re going to have less room to maneuver, budget-wise, for a while but we are up for the challenge. I think we’ll be fine but we’re going to have to be far more careful and creative, say “no” to ourselves quite a bit more, and most likely change up how and where we travel for the next couple of years.

Closing Out the Books for July

We had another low key month, spending wise, and were able to keep our daily spending average at $39.99/day, still under budget but a little bit higher than last month. Once again this month we had several no spend days, and even though we had one big shopping trip to Costco and Trader Joe’s we spent less than we had on previous trips. Most of the upfront expenses for our getaway out to the coast were paid for in June but we did indulge ourselves at lunch and dinner the first day, spent $$ on cheese and other goodies in Tillamook, and bought a large amount of salt water taffy to divide up for the girls. We also spent more at the farmers’ market each week in July (berries, berries, berries!) and had to reload our public transportation passes. The first payment on my dental work didn’t help our daily average either.

We also had some big expenses come out of our travel fund this month. We purchased YaYu’s ticket back to Pennsylvania at the end of August, and also a round-trip ticket for her to come to England in October. I’d been checking prices but could never find a really good match between price and schedule for the London ticket, and ended up paying just slightly more than I wanted (less than $100) but got her an itinerary with non-stop flights each way that will work with her upcoming fall class schedule. I did make one other big travel purchase this month as well – I’ll have a post up about it next week!

Otherwise, I feel like we are in good shape heading into August. We still have quite a bit of food on hand that has to get eaten (almost too much it seems – why did we buy so much butter?) so we will have fewer trips for groceries. There are just two more local outings we’d like to make, to the art museum and over to see Pittock Mansion once more. We’d like to reserve a Zipcar for the latter visit as public transportation is not convenient. Brett has only two calligraphy class meetings this month so that expense will be cut in half. We plan to go out to dinner at a downtown restaurant one evening with our friend Joan, but will order off the bistro menu in order to stay within our budget.

Our goal for this month is to get our daily expense average for Portland even lower than it was in June and July. We will be on a tighter budget when we get to England in September (because of upcoming college expenses for YaYu) and one of our primary August goals now is to re-sharpen  our frugal skills.

Closing Out the Books For June

After the spending madness of May, we had a MUCH better month in June, and took our daily spending average down by little over 50% from $74.46 to just $35.77!

The main reason for this huge drop in the daily average was that we had lots and lots and lots of no-spend days in June. With our pantry, fridge and freezer filled to overflowing at the end of last month we didn’t spend as much on groceries, and we kept our other discretionary spending low as well.

Our June spending (or lack of it) has helped to give us an idea of what things might look like once (if) we eventually settle down. We’re doing fine without owning a car, and our few car-sharing or rental costs have been quite low when averaged out over the month. Housing expenses are not included in our daily spending average, but they’re a little lower than average right now as well. All we currently pay is monthly “rent” for a great apartment in a great location, but without the additional expenses of taxes, utilities, WiFi, cable, etc. There are also no maintenance costs.

We will have the expense of our getaway out to the coast coming up in July, although our Zipcar (along with gasoline) and our lodging were paid for in June. We have some other activities for the month on our list as well that will require admission fees and such, and we will be making another trip to Costco in a couple of weeks which always brings up the monthly average for a while. However, we’re mainly going to keep doing what we have been which should still keep things below our self-imposed spending ceiling for another month.

Revamping My Travel Wardrobe – Part II

Part I of updating my travel wardrobe involved going through everything and sorting out what worked and what didn’t and removing or getting rid of items that I didn’t wear or want to wear, ones that didn’t fit any more, and things that gave out (like shoes).

Part II has been all about finding or replacing items with pieces that are more practical, fit better and are a bit more stylish.

Below are 15 new items being added to my wardrobe:

This wool-blend turtleneck poncho looks somewhat heavy in the picture but it’s actually fairly lightweight while being very comfortable and warm when it’s on. It will pop over a variety of tops that I already have. Before it arrived Brett was skeptical about me wearing a poncho, but he likes how I look in this one (so do I).

When we were in India, the other woman in our travel group had a couple of shawls (ruana) that she carried along – they were easy to pop on when she needed a little warmth. This lightweight one is the same idea, and is so comfortable and flattering that I bought a second one in a dark moss green.

This kimono-sleeved sweatshirt tunic is actually a dark indigo blue and white although it looks black in the picture. The big pocket in front is an added plus.

I love the length and pattern of this indigo swing-style sweater. It’s a fairly lightweight piece though, fine on its own for fall, but I’ll probably need a camisole underneath for a bit more warmth during the winter.

I found this sweatshirt cardigan on the sale rack at Muji in Sangenjaya while I was waiting for a dressing room. It’s very soft, and a great length.

I can never find jeans that fit comfortably these days (small waist, big hips), and don’t care for the feel of them anyway so when I found indigo leggings J.Jill I decided to go with them instead (I bought two pair). I love the weight of the fabric – they will be warm in winter without being overly heavy.  I was a bit nervous about wearing leggings as I have heavy legs, but a friend posted this on Facebook one day: Want a bikini body? Put on a bikini! and I decided I needed to wear what I was comfortable in and get over being disappointed in not having some sort of “perfect” figure. The dark olive Perfect Fit pants are also a nice neutral and a color I like much better than the gray or navy pairs that I previously had packed. New summer pants include a pair of white capri leggings and a pair of knit denim capris.

 This lightweight raincoat will be a bit more practical than the three other non-waterproof jackets I had been carrying along. Not only is it waterproof, but it’s roomy enough to go over sweaters and other layers. It doesn’t show in the picture, but the waist can be cinched for more of a trench coat look, and I love, love, love the big pockets in front.

The two pair of Skechers slip-ons I started out with last year were very comfortable at first, but ended up with the memory foam soles compressed to flat (I joked that I could step on a dime with them on and tell whether it was heads or tails) and they also started falling apart. The red slip-ons above are a much better quality walking shoe, and I wanted a pop of color this time around. Red is a great neutral that actually goes with almost everything. Because I will be wearing leggings, I thought the blue ankle boots would also be a fun choice. The boots have a thick sole so are great for walking. Both pair are lightweight, both are very comfortable and fit perfectly, but both pairs will have to be waterproofed before we go (the blue boots are suede and the red pair are nubuck leather).

I usually prefer to wear solid colors, but I fell in love with this traditional Maori-patterned tunic I found at a shop in downtown Rotorua. The shop was Maori owned and operated, and all items inside, from art to household goods to clothing, were designed and made by Maori artisans.This long-ish black linen swing dress is also from Muji. It’s loose and comfortable and I can’t wait to wear it this summer!

Finally, I found this beautiful leather tote at Goodwill and snapped it up. It’s a great color, it hangs comfortably on my shoulder, and it will easily hold all my travel stuff (and then some). It’s in like-new condition too, so should last a long time.

Except for the Maori tunic and black linen dress, every item I purchased was on sale or from a thrift store, with several of the new pieces at more than 70% off the original price. The raincoat came from REI; the shoes from Zappos; the dark olive pants from L.L. Bean; and the gray sweatshirt cardigan and the black linen dress were purchased at Muji while we were in Japan. Along with the tote, I bought the summer dress I wore to Meiling’s graduation and a black velvet tunic at Goodwill. Everything else was purchased from J. Jill, my very favorite clothing store.

Outside of my pajamas, underwear, and socks, I now will be packing 35 pieces of clothing ranging from summer tops to a winter coat, as well as with three pairs of shoes, and two pairs of sandals. None of the new items are very bulky or heavy, including the shoes, and they should all fit into my big suitcase (especially since I’m no longer carrying 30 packages of CookDo and a bulk package of mugi-cha in the bottom of it).

Closing Out the Books For May

Two dozen bagels to get Brett through the summer are now in the freezer.

I don’t even want to think about what we spent in May.

We left Japan with a daily spending average of $51.03, but we are ending the month in Oregon with a daily spending average of $74.46 – YIKES! I knew it was going to be bad, but not this bad.

What did we spend all that money on? Food! Lots and lots and lots of food. We had to feed YaYu while she was here and got a few things for her that she’ll need in Japan and, because we won’t have a car this summer, we did a couple of big shops at Costco when we did have a car – one when we first arrived, and another this past week. We also stocked up at Trader Joe’s and Winco, and we bought a few things at Target. Our cupboards, fridge and freezer are stuffed full, and we now have enough laundry supplies, toilet paper and paper towels to get us through the summer (the house came with supplies to get us started thankfully). Our Oregon spending also includes a Brita pitcher and filters which we will store when we leave, our TriMet passes, and the car rental to take YaYu to the airport.

All of this hopefully means that our monthly averages for the rest of the summer will be well below average. We will be paying admission for a few activities, making a couple of trips to Trader Joe’s, and visiting the OHSU farmer’s market every week for fresh produce, but between the two of us this summer I think we will be able to keep our spending to minimum (clothing and other travel supplies come out of a different fund). Fingers crossed!

Closing Out the Books on April

We’ve set aside all of our 1¥ and 5¥ coins while we’ve been in Japan for our granddaughter – we jokingly call is “K’s trust fund.” I think there’s over 300¥ in there now – around $3.00 (but I also spy a 50¥ coin right on top in the center).

After a couple of months of being slightly over-budget, we made up for it in April and came in well under our daily goal – yeah us! Brett totaled up everything for the month, and our daily spending average for April was just $38.56! Our 74-day average daily spend for the time we’ve been in Japan also came to $46.65. These really are amounts I wasn’t sure we’d be able to achieve.

Our son’s generosity has helped us immensely, especially this past month – besides covering all transportation expenses involved in picking up our grandson, in return for our time watching the grands they covered everything except souvenirs on our getaway last weekend, and also for meals out together this past month. We have offered to pay for things, or at least for our expenses, but they have refused.

We have 11 more days left in Japan beginning Friday. We are eating down our food supplies, and are for the most part done with sightseeing (we’re visiting the Yanaka neighborhood on Friday, but that’s the last outing). We plan to make one last trip into Yokohama to pick up a couple of food items at the Sogo department store (bird cookies!), but other than that we’re done with spending except for transportation and items that are absolutely necessary.

Tokyo (and Japan) has a reputation for being expensive, and definitely can be if you’re not careful, or like me want to buy everything because it’s Japanese and cool and/or beautiful. Still, I’m very happy and satisfied that we’ve been able to spend three months living here for less than we thought was possible, and without sacrificing anything.

Closing Out the Books on March

We had a very good month in March, spending wise. Right until the last day, that is.

February ended with a daily spending average of $56.93, with nearly $200 in spending over our monthly budget amount. We were determined to be more careful in March, and by March 30 we had managed to get our daily average down to $44.39, which included Meiling’s and her boyfriend’s arrival and our getaway to Odawara (our son took care of almost all our expenses there).

And then March 31 happened.

To celebrate our anniversary, and because we had two of our four children together who don’t get to see each other very much, we took everyone out to the Sunday Brunch at the New Sanno Hotel – six adults and one child (there was thankfully no charge for our granddaughter). And, following brunch, we went with Meiling to the Meiji Shrine and down into Harajuku where we treated all of us to crepes. On the way home we stopped in at the grocery store and bought some extra items for Meiling to bring home. Our spending for the one day ended up at $270.96 which brought our March average up to $51.69, and our daily average spend in Japan to $52.35. Ouch.

We are not off to a particularly good start in April either, with our daily spend average right now hovering around $57 (the day at Disneyland didn’t help), but we have the rest of the month to get back on track. I think we can do it because other than Brett’s birthday this month, and Easter, there are no big events coming up, just small outings and trips for groceries for the two of us. We shopped at the discount grocery store this past weekend and saw a considerable difference in the amount we paid, so that will help.

Fingers are once again crossed that we get through this month under our desired average of $50/day.

Closing Out the Books on February

Two trips to the commissary and one to the Navy Exchange in the past two weeks exploded our daily spending average for February. The commissary on the Yokosuka base was huge, with many affordable temptations but we stuck to necessary items only (I consider Diet Coke necessary).

February was not a good month, budget-wise.

We always knew that our stay Japan would be expensive and push the boundaries of our budget. Following two weeks in Sydney and New Zealand, we arrived in Japan slightly over budget. Our first two weeks here ratcheted our daily and monthly spending up even more. With a few no-spend days so far this week we have managed to get our daily average back down to a more acceptable level, but we’re ending the month with a daily spending average of $56.93 ($194.04 for the month). Ouch.

The biggest reason for our higher average in Japan were trips to the commissary and exchange at NAF Atsugi and another trip this week to the commissary at the Yokosuka naval base. Although prices were low we bought a lot of stuff to settle in and replenish supplies, as well as things we needed in the apartment, like food storage containers, extra toilet paper, and laundry supplies.

The upside is that we are starting March with a comfortable amount of yen in our wallets, and we are well-stocked with essentials and pantry basics. We will need to buy produce, meat and other smaller items (i.e. butter, yogurt) from the Japanese supermarket in the next few days but otherwise spending should be at a minimum.

February – not our finest month when it comes to staying on track with the budget. I tell myself that it could have been worse, and that we’ll hopefully see a better monthly average at the end of March.

Closing Out the Books On January

Four no-spend days on the train helped our bottom line, but sadly not enough.

January should have been a very low-cost month for us, but it didn’t turn out that way. We had more no-spend days than any previous month, and yet our costs outside of those days turned out to be quite high, and as a result we ended the month over our daily spend limit by nearly $5.50/day, or a total of $170.50 for the month. That’s not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but it was still troubling for us.

Our short stay in Hong Kong is where we really got into trouble, spending-wise, because any way we sliced it, Hong Kong was an expensive city. We saved in some areas, but other things caught us way off guard, like the huge (and surprising) cost to get our laundry done at the hotel, for example. Our casual lunch out at Stanley (a sandwich, some fish & chips, and two iced teas) was nearly $60US. It cost us twice as much to eat at Hong Kong Disneyland than our admission, and so on. A few taxi rides didn’t help the bottom line either. We made up for some of that overage once we got to Australia, which we have found to be very affordable in comparison, and hoped we’d be able to come in just slightly above our goal of $50/day by the end of the month. Our purchase of two $50AU Opal cards and a few groceries yesterday dashed those hopes.

However, with our Opal cards and groceries now in hand we are off to a good start in February, and hopefully we can keep things under control for the rest of our time in Australia, and then in New Zealand and Japan, although we will be having to buy (expensive) gasoline for the car in New Zealand, and two spendy tickets to get into Tokyo from the airport. But otherwise we should be OK, and are keeping our fingers crossed.

I also discovered that along with tracking our daily spending averages, Brett has also been tracking our daily steps and miles walked. Yesterday, for example, we walked 5.3 miles, and Brett took 14,333 steps (around 16,000 for me). The amount surprised me, considering how hot it was. Good thing I got most of those steps in before I fell and broke my toe!

It’s time for a pedicure again too!

Late yesterday afternoon the front edge of my flip-flop caught on the edge of a step as we were entering the David Jones department store in downtown Sydney (looking for a moisturizer/sunscreen replacement), and down I went. I was otherwise OK, but knew fairly soon that I had broken something in my foot because the pain in my toes was at a whole different level. However, I could still walk and we made it back home and out to dinner last night. I decided not to go to the ER because I knew all that would happen was there would be an X-ray confirming the break, my toes would be taped together, I would be told to elevate and ice my foot, and we would get a bill (I have broken a toe before). Instead, we stopped at a pharmacy and bought some tape, I taped the toe myself, and am keeping my foot elevated and iced as much as possible, and it’s all feeling better today. Brett is out with my brother this morning touring a couple of museums while I rest my foot, but I will be ready to do some limited walking later today and we plan to go tour the opera house tomorrow morning before my brother has to head back up to his home in Queensland (where there has been heavy flooding).

We have four more full days in Sydney though before leaving for New Zealand, so we should have enough time to do and see everything we’d like before we go. I’m having a very nice reunion with my brother as well!