Recently both Ashley and I have been asked how we are able to afford the adventure we are undertaking on our way home to Australia. Aside from wondering what impression people have about our relative financial stability, it has led me to ponder, how are we able to afford this? We are not, by any means, affluent. Public school teachers and not-for-profit professionals are never on the cover of “Forbes” for good reason. Hell, we are never on the cover of Maxim either… but that doesn’t make us any less sexy! So, after getting over a little “sticker shock” at our budget for the next five months I thought I’d write about our pre-journey, our savings plan.
People have not been rude when enquiring about the cost of such a trip, after hearing about our plans they simply say, “How can you afford that?! I know I would never be able to afford it myself.” Fair question. Whenever I read a blog written by a family that has thrown off the strictures of everyday life and are undertaking a two-year, full-time journey around the world with their three children under five (sigh!) I think, “What bank or hedge fund did one of those parents work for?” Other blogs often skirt the issue of cost and focus on the location alone. I unfortunately always think, “Yeah, I’m sure that sunset over the wildebeest herd was wonderful while sipping margaritas you rich bastards.” Having said that, I think that people would be surprised to discover – that by applying a little mathematics – our trip is very possible for most middle-income people. It’s all about priorities, you see.
First, and bear in mind that this is going to sound very corny, you have to want it! We have always loved to travel and never, ever have enough of it. There is always another country to visit, another culture to check out. I am unsure of many, many things, but I know that on my deathbed I will utter the following to my born-again, hippy, tree-hugging great-grandson, “I wish I ate those mushrooms with that group of Indians in Mexico… cough… gurgle…….” I will never be able to experience enough to sit back and feel satisfied. Travel costs money, and in order to go for longer than a typical short vacation, you have to be willing to go without other things. Some people want to own a motorcycle, others a pleasure craft of some kind, some lust for a second home by the sea. Others have expensive hobbies and invest thousands in pursuit of them. I guess, in the end, it’s all about what an individual finds value-for-money in. Speaking for myself, I could not bear to invest hundreds of dollars a month in an item, like a vacation home, that I only get to use occasionally. So instead of having a garage full of toys or a place at Hilton Head, we are investing in travel.
We made a budget, and stuck to it. This was nothing new for us, as when we relocated to New Jersey in 2006 only I had a job. After four years, one daughter and no second job, our family was used to living on one salary. So when Ashley was offered a maternity leave position for one school year we jumped at it, and banked her whole salary! This, I think, is difficult for many people to do. With life markedly more hectic with both parents working and day care costs putting pressure on the bank balance it would be easy to relax and say, “Why are we struggling to cook dinner tonight? Let’s just go and eat out.” We also often deposited a little more that we planned into our savings account and then attempted to keep it there. Sometimes this worked… and sometimes it didn’t, but when it did we were very happy to be ahead of where we’d expected to be at that stage.
We resisted fads. Of course being careful with our money would only carry us so far, what really matters is that which is sacrificed for the greater good. In this quest we used the mantra, “Will this matter when I am sitting on the patio of my villa in the Greek Islands?” Which is not to say that we never had those tempting moments staring through the window of a Best Buy and thinking it would be great to have an iPhone or a 60 inch plasma screen TV. These things undoubtedly have their uses and often could legitimately be justified, but if life can be lived comfortably without them we would steel our resolve and carefully remove each other’s hands from the debit card.
We actively sought out ways to lower our monthly costs. Most people choose a cell phone carrier, purchase a plan and think little about it thereafter. Ashley spent many evenings looking over bills and searching the internet on a quest to be sure that we were not paying for services that we did not need, or even use. For example, we did not use all of the minutes that our monthly cell phone plan provided to us, so after exhausting all other options we chose to buy a pre paid Tracfone. Because these plans only charge for the minutes you use, our cell phones costs went from $50 per month to less than five. Often this work takes effort, time, and research, and I think this is the reason that people continue with plans that they do not need. Sometimes the savings decisions feel like they are made for us, like cable TV. Cable or Satellite in our area amounted to $50 per month also. After considering how important TV was to our family we chose to cancel the subscription entirely and rely on content exclusively from the internet instead. For a paltry $8 a month we could watch streaming content from Netflix in addition to numerous other free sites like Hulu.com.
We drove simple, basic cars. Oh, every time I saw my buddies in their shiny new trucks with spray-on-liners and chrome accents I had a pang of jealousy, I’ll admit. But my ten year old Dodge served honorably and consistently right up until I handed the keys over to its next owner. And when it was time to upgrade Ashley’s car we chose a simple, affordable small car instead of a more expensive ride. We had decided in advance on a reasonable monthly payment for a car inside the limitations of our budget and did not commit until we met that goal. Having said that, I would like to go on record and say that we have been very happy with our Honda Fit and intend to purchase the very same model once in Australia (although over there they call it a Jazz… go figure).
It helps to marry a woman who is a bargain shopper. I am very fortunate in that my wife views shopping for anything as a competitive sporting event, the goal of which is to pay such a small amount that others, when informed of the price, are shocked. My wife is so proud of her shopping abilities that she brags about it to anyone who will listen, operating as though she possesses a secret that others need to be aware of, “This little number? I paid $15 for this at Marshall’s last week after seeing it at the Mall for sixty. Who do those stores think they are kidding? You should never pay full price for clothes, it all so marked up, all you have to do…” and so on. After reading this paragraph Ashley would like it to be known that this does not mean that she condones “cheap” clothing. She is a bargain shopper for “quality products” alone. “It’s not as though everything I buy is from the Dollar Store Marcus! Although the Dollar Store does have its place.” Yes dear, you rock!
And finally, we have the support of our family. We would not be able to move home to Australia without the support of my family and my wife’s as well. They are housing and feeding us on both ends of this adventure, and thereby allowing us to pack, make arrangements and get organized without the added hassle of bills, jobs and, you know, actual lives to live! This benefit cannot be underestimated. It would be markedly more difficult to make all of these arrangements while working a full-time job, looking after a child, taking out the trash, cleaning the toilet and all of the other things that go into a regular daily life. So for this I must say to my In-laws, thank you very much. And to my mother… you’ll get your turn in October.
And so there you have it, the way to return to your homeland by way of Europe, some of Africa and Asia without breaking the bank and wind up owing some shylock all your fingers. Our trip is not, to be sure, one of epic proportions. A quick search of the internet will turn up families undertaking journeys that make our adventure look like a quick walk around to the corner store for a pack of smokes. But it is our adventure and the same people who have expressed wonder at how we can afford it are also those that express admiration that we are doing it at all. And that makes me happy, to know that my family is taking the road less traveled, because it is in taking this particular road that always leads to happiness for us.