When my husband, Andrew, and I got engaged, we knew two things for sure: We wanted to live debt-free and we wanted to travel. We were lucky enough to have parents on both sides who could contribute to the wedding. Between that and careful budgeting, we avoided wedding debt.
Travel was a trickier matter. I dreamed of backpacking for months on end. I wanted to stay in a cave house in Santorini, tour the Alhambra in Granada, and drink wine in the south of France. All in all, the trip we imagined would cost $18,000.
Our plane took off on January 30, 2014. We traveled in India, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Ireland, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, and France. When we touched down in the USA again on July 30, we were still debt free. Here’s how we funded the trip.
1. Put goals on paper
Before we tied the knot, Andrew and I were already discussing the shape of our big trip. We figured out how long we wanted to travel and listed our must-see countries. I added notes to remind myself that I wanted to be in the Netherlands during peak tulip season, and in Paris on Bastille Day.
Seeing our goals written down motivated us to make them a reality. It also helped us understand why we needed to buckle down hard on our savings.
2. Move to a cheaper location
Rent is by far the biggest cost in most budgets, which makes it the biggest potential source of savings. Before marriage, we lived in separate one-bedroom apartments, and we wanted to save as much as we could when we moved in under one roof. Instead of looking for a rowhome in one of Baltimore’s trendy neighborhoods, we browsed options outside the city.
Cost of move: $400 (I hired movers. Andrew got rid of several redundant furniture items and enlisted friends and family to help move the rest.)
Rent savings: $580 x 14 = $8,120
Total savings so far: $7,720
3. Find free ways to have fun
Andrew and I became masters of the cheap date, and in a way, being conscious of where you’re spending your money forces you to be a more mindful traveler. You can spend $10 at the supermarket and enjoy a mountaintop picnic. Many museums are free, and in summer you can often find cheap or free concerts and outdoor movie showings. Libraries and grad schools host poetry readings (sometimes with free wine and cheese). Going out for ice cream instead of dinner can easily save $50.
We curbed personal spending to a strict allowance, too. By cutting $50 from each of our personal funds and replacing two dates a month with free or low-cost alternatives, we saved about $200 a month.
Discretionary spending savings: $2,800
Total savings so far: $10,520
4. Cut the cable
Cable companies often monopolize an area, which is part of why the bills can get so high. We didn’t even subscribe to Hulu Plus or Netflix, although we did splurge on a few seasons of Doctor Who. I won’t lie: Having a month-old SNL episode freeze up on your laptop for the umpteenth time gets old. But one month’s cable bill was almost enough to cover a day trip to visit the Taj Mahal.
Cost: $100 for three seasons of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff
Cable savings: $75 x 14 = $1,050
Total savings so far: $11,470
5. Downgrade the smartphone
Keeping ancient flip phones made us feel old-fashioned, but a smartphone and data plan for each of us would have cost $130 a month! Our phone savings alone funded a full 10 percent of our trip budget.
Cell phone savings: $1,820
Total savings so far: $13,290
6. Celebrate intermediate milestones
The best part about planning an international trip is daydreaming. We booked flights and hotels throughout our first year of marriage, and every time felt like a mini-party. I’d call my mom to shout, “We’ve got a flight from New Delhi to Rome!” We’d book a hotel in Seville, then go to Google Street View and plan a tapas crawl, or spend an evening reading up on farms in Ireland that host volunteers.
Celebrating milestones along the way is important for any savings goal. If you’re trying to raise a down payment for a house, browse Zillow or Pinterest for dream home inspiration, or visit an open house in your chosen neighborhood. Working on erasing debt? Toast every $1,000 you pay off at your favorite happy hour spot. Spending $40 to stay motivated to pay off the next $1,000 is worth it.
7. Moonlight for extra funds
I was working full-time and finishing my last year of grad school, so I didn’t have much time for extra work. Still, I found an occasional freelance gig. My employer also paid to professionally bind my MFA short story collection, so any sales I made were pure profit.
Moonlight earnings: $800
Total savings so far: $14,090
8. Swipe the right credit cards
Each of us has a credit card with a good rewards program (5 percent cash back in bonus categories on up to the quarterly maximum in purchases every quarter we activate). A chunk of our gift fund for birthdays and Christmas came out of rewards we earned.
Rewards earned: $300
Total savings so far: $14,390
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9. Black out spending categories
Sometimes it’s easier to cut spending entirely for a short period, rather than reduce it for a whole year. Skipping clothes shopping from April through June and September through November kept me away from impulse buys during sales. I knew I could fill in gaps in my wardrobe later, but for the most part I discovered I didn’t need to.
The same idea applies to perennial purchases, like takeout. Say you order pizza once a week, like we often did. Replacing delivery with frozen pizzas from the supermarket for a month can save $10 per week. Hide the takeout menus four months out of the year and you’ve got an extra $160, without sacrificing convenience.
Shopping restriction savings: $1,160
Total savings so far: $15,550
10. Use windfalls wisely
If you’re newly married or have a new baby, you may be in for a bigger tax refund than usual. Filing our first joint tax return led to us getting a nice check from the IRS. We treated ourselves with a small portion, but stashed the rest.
Windfall savings: $2,500
Grand total saved: $18,050
The trip of a lifetime
While some other newlyweds we knew struggled with debt, our savings plan let us take the trip of a lifetime. When I look back on our photos, I don’t only remember an amazing 6 months. I see proof that we can build an adventurous, financially sound life together.
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