6 Ways I Saved for My Big Leap
“Discipline is just choosing between what you want now and what you want most.”
~Augusta F. Kantra
When I first began devising my future plans to quit my job and travel the world, money was a huge barrier for me. Money became the excuse that held me back from doing what I really wanted to be doing. That pretty much sucked.
We all have goals we feel we simply cannot achieve because of a fiscal barrier– this is a fact of life. But, for whatever reason, I woke up one day determined not to accept this. I decided I would stop using the money excuse and I would start focusing my energy on rearranging my life to facilitate more aggressive saving.
Overtime this strategy seemed to work. As I began to see progression in my saving, that money barrier began to crumble.
I attribute the rapid growth in my bank account to making a few minor, along with a few fairly significant, changes. Sometimes these changes were easy. Other times, as anyone would suspect, it was a struggle. But now, looking at my bank statement, and knowing what that money means for me, I couldn’t be more pleased–or proud of myself.
I’m pretty sure any aspirational change (new house? new car?) could benefit from these saving methods.
How I pulled it off:
I want to preface this by saying: I am 25 years old–single, and supporting no one but myself. This fact made the following much easier to achieve. However, there are entire families who have not only saved for and accomplished long-term travel but have paid off large debt in the process ( see The Great Family Escape, Away is Home, or Man vs Debt )
1. I took control of my finances.
I may not be here today if it weren’t for Mint.com…
Maybe I’m being a tad dramatic, but I feel like giving a champagne toast to Mint. This handy little personal finance/budget tracking site forced me to look at my spending under a magnifying glass.
When I first got serious about saving, I sat down with my Mint account and a pad of paper. I made a list of all of my usual daily, weekly, and monthly expenses. Then I went through and categorized all my expenses in either “fun or frivolous” spending (going out, weekend trips, shopping), or “responsible existence” spending (i.e. rent, food, gas, student loan payments, investment club payment, etc).
I became acutely aware of the items on my list that didn’t fit into the “responsible existence” category. And within the categories that seemed to be the biggest money suckers, I brainstormed ways I could cut down.
- The Problem: I was paying $500 a month/plus around $90-120 for utilities on my apartment.
Solution: Step One: get a roommate and put that extra $300 a month directly in my savings account– which eventually gave way to Step Two: Move back in with parents and put the extra $600+ in savings.
- Problem: Filling up my tank multiple times a month was a drain on my finances. Solution: Walk to work every day and carpool more.
- Problem: I was spending big $$ on groceries and food Solution: Stick to budget stores like Aldi’s, waste less food, use coupons, stop ordering out and eat at parents more often. etc. Easy in theory, difficult in execution; but sometimes you just gotta suck it up and be a cheap-wad (if it’s important to you you’ll find a way).
Next, I used mint to set up a visual of all my accounts. I tracked my spending religiously, set budgets, and stuck to them. I’d check and re-check my accounts on a bi-weekly basis–ok, let’s face it, sometimes even multiple times a day (the Mint app made it too easy). Constantly assessing whether each purchase was “completely necessary.”
At the end of every month I recorded my spending patterns and savings amount into a spreadsheet (see #3). This made my progress visual, and motivated me to break my saving goals I had set for each month.**
2. I cut out unnecessary spending.
I began by creating “no-spend” days. In the beginning I told myself that from Monday to Wednesday I would not spend a penny on anything that was not an absolute necessity. This allowed me to start changing the way I thought about spending; and made me more conscious of what constituted a necessary purchase.
Between this and setting up a mint account I realized how much of my money was going toward silly or “fluffy” purchases. I had always been a “brown-bagger” but I got even more serious about packing my own lunch. That is one expense that can add up very fast.
I started walking to work more frequently, and generally used my car less (it wasn’t uncommon for me to only have to fill up once every 2 months). I cancelled unnecessary monthly subscriptions. My Mint account was helpful with determining where my money was going and when it was going somewhere unnecessary.
3. I discovered the joy of spreadsheets.
I become borderline obsessed with spreadsheets. It was fun. Really. First, I created hypothetical trip expenses; from plane tickets to insurance, average daily cost estimates, pre-trip purchases, etc. I checked Lonely Planet, and a slew of travel blogs to get an idea of how much I might expect to need–always rounding up.
I created a spreadsheet that tracked how much I spent each month and how much my saving grew from the month before. I felt a proud little tinge of satisfaction filling out my report at the end of each month; watching my money grow.
I began a healthy relationship with Google Documents, which allows me to access these beautiful spreadsheets from any computer in the world with internet access. I definitely plan on tracking my traveling expenses/spending when I’m on the road. Getting started a year early means it’s a habit before I ever leave home.
“It’s easier to suppress the first desire than to satisfy all that follow it” ~Benjamin Franklin
4. I thought twice before saying no to a money-making opportunity.
From the time I made up the decision to leave, I picked up random jobs, well, like it was my job: babysitter, wedding photographer, golf course beverage cart girl, banquet worker, dog sitter. I also managed to pick up some new freelance clients, and got a weekend job as a waitress at a new restaurant. This was in addition to my full-time job.
If ever I felt worn out from working the extra hours (which, you can bet I did), I’d just spend some time reading my RSS feed. I’d draw a great deal of inspiration from the conglomerate of travel blogs I’ve collected on my feed. If that didn’t work, I’d peek back on my saving spreadsheets. It made the hard work feel worthwhile, and reminded me of the bigger picture.
5. I became careful of where and how I purchased.
It sounds maybe a tad ridiculous, but I stopped grocery shopping at Super Walmart–not only because I dislike the place, but because I discovered that I ended up spending significantly more shopping there than at a regular grocery store, even though my go-to grocery items were always cheaper at Walmart.
The selection was apparently more than I could resist and I’d somehow end up buying more. I started creating a shopping list and sticking to it. Aldi’s was my main grocery stop.
I had to kick the online shopping habit I picked up, as a person who’s job actually involves subscribing to numerous eCommerce promotional email newsletters (i.e. I knew about every major sale as it launched). It was easy to stop buying “stuff” if I reminded myself of my goal to spend the next year with no more possessions than what can fit in a carry-on backpack.
6. I changed my perspective…
If your motivation is big enough–your focus becomes clearer with each passing week and your perspective begins to shift. Pretty soon your focus will change all together and spending becomes physically difficult. Just the other day, I just may have developed an ulcer when I had to replace my iPod touch…
In the beginning, when tempted by something frivolous like a pair of shiny new boots or a bag, I would force myself into thinking about spectacular things I could do with that money; a week’s accommodation in almost any city in Central America, a guided tour of Lake Titicaca, scuba diving lessons in Honduras…? With that perspective, those boots seemed like a major ripoff.
When all else failed, reading the blogs of those who already experienced what I was going through, and who were now reaping the benefits, helped tremendously (see Inspiration).
I watched this TED talk, which Daniel Goldstein explains the idea of present self and future self. Goldstein points out, “The present self does not want to save at all–it wants to consume. Whereas the future self wants the present self to save.” It’s about having perspective of both your present and future self. You don’t feel like you’re depriving yourself now if you know that by resisting temptation today, you’re splurging on your future self. Ufta…
Ultimately, It’s about resisting temptation. This isn’t easy, this is potentially about changing the way you think about spending, which very often requires a shift in lifestyle. This can be tough, living in modern America, with the temptation to buy everywhere.
Goldstein claims, “It’s not that your goals are physically impossible; it’s that you lack the self discipline to stick to them.” So work on your self-control. He explains that self-control is like a muscle–the more you use it the stronger it gets.
So start small if you must–skip the latte, limit the number of drinks you buy when out with friends, or start carpooling more often. And move on to the big ticket items as you feel better prepared to handle them.
In short ….
- I became acutely conscious and aware of my spending. I questioned every single penny I spent–though not too obsessively. I set spending rules for myself, AND I STUCK TO THEM.
- I reassessed my living expenses. I got a roommate about 9 months before I planned to leave. Then 2 months before my departure date, I moved back in with my parents. Paying nothing for rent really accelerates the saving process.
- I created a “Fun Jar.” Though I didn’t cut out all extra fun or entertainment opportunities with friends, I did cut down significantly. I am young and I didn’t want to stop living now just so I could start living in May. So I started putting a portion of the cash I made at my waitress job in a “fun jar,” so I always had a little spending money set aside when fun stuff came up. If something came up and there was no money in the jar–and it wasn’t an activity I manage to do for free–chances are I wouldn’t do it. I turned down a few weekend trips and sky diving using this logic. It wasn’t easy–but I felt OK with those decisions.
- I got good at taking advantage of deals, sales, coupons for only the purchases that I really needed to make.
- I became an gracious mooch. I frequented my parents place for dinner more than I had in the past. I couldn’t say no to free food opportunities.**
- I took advantage of cheap or free alternatives. I used the library more instead of buying books. I used Hulu or Netflix instead of cable.
- I kept my eye on the prize and stayed focused. This was important, since I gave myself less than 9 months to increase my savings by 400-500%. I’d recommend starting early, give yourself at least a year.
This article was originally written March of 2012 and updated June 2015.