How I’ve saved for travel on any budget

How I've saved for travel on any budget- header


My travel savings have changed radically over the years. When I was 21, feeling flush with money with a $1000/month paycheck and no expenses, money was just there to be tossed at a weekend adventure into The Middle of Nowhere, Russia or a big night out on the town. Now – after blowing savings on a huge year of travel, a green card application, and a 5,000 mile + move across the ocean – our travel budget is more like the spare change rattling around in our bank account after all the bills are paid.

But honestly what I’ve come to realize is that travel can be teased and pulled out of any budget if you’re just able to look at the concept with a squint and head tilt that radically shifts what travel looks like. So whether you’ve got thousands of dollars stockpiled for a major round-the-world trip or you’ve got a twenty crumpled at the bottom of your bag for a day when you just need to blow off some steam, I think my rather unsexy budgeting ideas can help you make the most out of your money.

Let’s have a look at the four methods I’ve been using to be sure I can meet my 2016 goal of traveling more, both near and far!

Hide from spending opportunities

Avoid spending opportunities!See those clothes/camera? All oldies but goodies which I’ve yet to replace because I’m avoiding spending opportunities!

Simultaneously the most simple and most difficult strategy to employ, I’ve got to say. The concept is pretty simple: keep yourself away from temptation. For me, money-spending temptations pretty much solely revolve around food and drinks. Knowing and acknowledging the things I completely lose my mind around help me plan ahead and hide from spending opportunities.

Because honestly: while a Starbucks coffee tastes delicious, $4 here and there really begins to add up after a while. Throw in eating out once or twice a week and you could be spending hundreds of dollars each month on totally unforgettable drinks and meals. Me? I’d rather pocket that money and spend it on a unique experience like a weekend getaway to a new town with some seriously fabulous dining options.

How I keep myself from whipping out the wallet: spend a day in nature, lose myself in a gorgeous residential neighborhood where shops are few and far between, or stay at home to plot where I’m going to spend my travel fund!

Avoid recurring costs

I’ll give you a great example we’ve been struggling with since coming to Indianapolis: a car. We’ve seriously considered getting one but also add a several hundred dollars per month recurring cost due to insurance, gas, maintenance, etc. Buying a car would make our lives so much easier, but it would also tie us down financially and physically. Personally I’m one to err on the side of freedom over convenience, but that’s a personal decision for sure.

So while avoiding recurring expenses may be unavoidable (let’s be honest, some places you need a car), through the years I’ve always found myself happy in the end that I avoided putting a monthly burden on myself. Remember: the fewer the expenses, the easier it is to take off on a new adventure whenever you feel ready! At this point, rent, monthly phone/internet, and a quarterly student loan payments are the only things tying me down financially – and that feels good!

So every time I’m sitting at a freezing cold bus stop before the sun rises and cursing the world, I have to remember those hundreds of dollars I’m saving for an adventure way more exciting than a junky used car!

Create an unbudget

Create an unbudgetWhat’s an unbudget, you might be wondering? Glad you asked! An unbudget is basically a system set up so that you don’t have to go through the tedious process of figuring out what percentage of your paycheck goes to what area. Instead, you choose 2-3 areas you consider absolutely essential (rent/amenities, travel savings, house down payment – for example), budget for them, and spend the rest of the money without thinking about it. That’s it.

Here’s how I unbudget: I save [x]%* of my paycheck in a savings account I save [x]%* of my paycheck in a separate travel account. I pay for rent, internet, and cell phones. The rest of the money is to be spent however we like. I appreciate that this process is a lot simpler for us because we have very few financial obligations, but I really think this could work for everyone. Because honestly, once your savings and necessities are out of the way, it’s fairly simple to figure out what you can do with the rest of the money.

*varies per month, but usually around 20% and 30%, respectively.

When times allow for savings, our travel rate is really high (like, absolutely no eating out or ‘want’ spending, really high) but the beauty of the unbudget is that it works however you need it to work. If you know you like to go out a lot or spend wildly on clothes, simply lower your savings rate and enjoy the (relatively) guilt-free feeling of knowing you can run your bank account to zero with a solid savings base!

Use credit cards strategically

Let’s be honest: budgeting can be tricky and it can often feel like there is no wiggle room in your budget to save more, especially for something like travel. I totally feel you – I’ve talked about that before.

But one handy trick I’ve really come to embrace since getting a credit card last year is to pay everything with my credit card that earns me miles with every dollar I spend. (Obviously with the express intent of paying everything off that month! Credit card debt seriously cramps travel!) The pain of paying rent lessens just a bit when, rather than just sending a check off, I pay with my Capital One Venture Card and get a couple of miles back. While it may not be much, those miles eventually add up and can be used for flights, hotel rooms, and all other kinds of good stuff you’ll need when traveling.

Basically if there are months with no room (or not enough room) in my unbudget for travel savings, the Capital One card gives me the feeling I’m working towards a travel goal anyway! (I also have a 360 account which is lovely because it has no minimums or fees – so even if you’ve only got $10 in your travel account at the moment, that’s OK!)

Now’s not the time to be greedy: share your best tips on how you save for travel adventures in the comments below!

I was selected for this opportunity as a member of Clever Girls and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.

  • Good advice! We’re planning a big trip/honeymoon this spring and I had to delete the starbucks app off my phone. Thanks for sharing.

    • Ha! Yes, those little expenses start to creep up after a while, don’t they! Good luck saving/planning for your big trip!

  • I could really use this advice right now! I’ve started planning my travels for the summer and realized I need to learn how to save! Starbucks definitely adds up, so I try to avoid any expenses and going to the mall all together. Great advice!


    • Haha so funny how everyone mentions Starbucks. They’ve clearly taken over the world very effectively! Good luck saving!

  • We have a sort of unbudget thing going on. We have so much for bills, a cet amount every month goes to savings and then the left overs go to whatever we want, which usually is more travel things, but it means that we don’t eat into the savings to do the travel things 🙂 Money is the route to all evil, but also a pretty good route to good times too!
    Kerri recently posted…USA || American Museum of Natural History, New York CityMy Profile

    • I’m with ya: I hate to worry about it, hate to have too much of it, but damn, money’s useful 🙂 I’m also a big fan of the separate saving budget since it’s super tempting to tap into savings if they’re easily accessible.

  • Great advice! I’ve recently moved from Colorado to Scotland recently to do a master’s program, and now that I’m back to being a student, trying to budget everything while finding the money to travel Europe has been particularly tricky. I love the idea of keeping yourself from temptation! How do you keep yourself from going out to drinks/meals with friends if they ask?

    • Oh man, I feel ya! I guess the biggest tip I have is to have a master list of everything (free or very low-cost) that you want to do. I find that if, I jot down every time I come across something interesting online/in the paper, I usually have a list decent enough to find something tempting for everyone.

      Hope that helps!

  • Liz

    Great advice! It’s the first time I’ve heard of unbudget and I love it! I can get really OC with financial matters — and it does me no good because I still don’t get to save a lot. Sometimes I feel like I’m being obsessive about it for the sake of being obsessive about it. I will definitely employ the unbudget tactic and let myself just chill out about it. 🙂 Thank you!

    • Totally! I definitely still have a lot of “OMG should I really spend $2 on this snack on the way home?!” when, at the end of the day, that $2 isn’t making or breaking me! The unbudget has helped lessen those feelings for sure, since I can feel confident whatever’s in the bank is there to be spent that week!

  • I have to say… about the car thing: I know this post is about saving money and there are some great tips n’ stuff (I love the unbudget idea). But! I freakin’ love my old used 1991 Honda that’s back in the States that I got for less than $3,000 and still runs like a beaut. It’s true that you’d have insurance to deal with, but with gas prices at epic lows in the States, it seems like it could be a good time to go for it? I wouldn’t do it in Europe just because thangs are way different here and the public transport infrastructure is better, but a good used car in the USA is a good thing to have.
    (again, just my two cents. which by the way, was cool to see a photo of american money :))

    • I totally agree with you – in no way is a car a bad idea (and yes, we’ll also be going for the el cheapo versions!) it’s just that right now it’s not a necessity so it’s harder to pull the trigger. I think we will be sooner than expected, though, since my husband’s poised to nab a really early morning job, but I’m hoping the car will even out our expenses a bit (being able to go to cheaper grocery stores and saving time!) and make it worth it.

  • These are great tips! I love reading how other people save.

    After realising how much my boyfriend was spending on coffee each week (going to the coffee shop nearby while working from home), he got an Aeropress coffee maker and a milk frother for Christmas. They probably cost the amount of ten coffees, and he can buy a bag of nice coffee from the local place for the price of one coffee, so he must be saving a fortune now. His family had more money than mine growing up, so I don’t think he’s ever really learnt how to economise before.

    I’d add that it’s a good idea to have separate savings accounts for different purposes, so you don’t get confused about what you’ve got to spend on travel compared to what you’ve got in your emergency fund.
    Laura recently posted…Languedoc: Views from the PlaygroundMy Profile

  • Love the unbudget! That’s often how I do it! I know I spend about £400 a month – the rest I put in my savings until the next paycheck. Like you said it’s easier said than done, especially with very little financial obligations. And for the credit card – the interesting thing is in the UK people don’t really use them – so I only use my credit card for international flights, which is pretty great!
    Camila @ AdventitiousViolet recently posted…Ullapool & the Writing RetreatMy Profile

    • So interesting re: credit cards! Living in Russia for the first 5 years of my adult life meant I never had a credit card since they’re also basically non-existent there.

      The US is a credit country which is great if used in the right way but pretty scary if it isn’t.
      Polly recently posted…Exploring NYC in Indianapolis ruinsMy Profile

  • I adore the idea of your unbudget – it’s very much how I try to live! As they say, travel is the only thing that will make you richer!

    • Totally agree – frees the mind and your bank account for a lot of fun!