Years ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I sat across from my wife Gayl in a taco stand and told her that I thought we should sell our house, quit our jobs and sail to Tahiti. “Terry, we don’t know how to sail,” she said.
She had a point, but I was much more worried about the financials of how we would bail out of society for two years and not end up begging in the streets of a foreign country. I was a magazine editor making less than $50,000 a year; she was a surf industry production manager making about the same. To make matters even more complicated, we had just bought our first house and had no savings.
Yet while she dreamed of starting a family, I dreamed of starting an adventure — anything that got me out of my cubicled existence. It took a hard sell, a lot of beer and promises of future parenthood, but somehow I convinced Gayl of the plan. Three years later, after taking everything from basic sailing to advanced anchoring, we quit our jobs and set sail in an old, leaky boat on a two-year, 6,000-mile journey to Mexico and the South Pacific.
Financially, the most difficult part was getting away; once Gayl and I were traveling, without even attempting to be frugal, we spent only $600 to $1,000 a month. That was less than our mortgage alone had been.
The trip, and preparing for it, convinced me that, when properly motivated, anyone can take two years off to travel the world. Here are the 10 top things we did to make our dream adventure a reality.
1. Get or Stay Debt-Free
The one thing Gayl and I had going for us is that we were debt-free — if you don’t count a $225,000 mortgage. We used credit cards sparingly, usually to get the rewards.
Most financial advisors will tell you that paying off high-interest credit cards should be your first move toward financial freedom. Unfortunately, Americans are not so great at that, with the average indebted household holding approximately $9,600 worth of credit card debt, according to a 2015 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Even with a relatively low interest rate of 15 percent, it will take you more than 16 years of paying $300 a month to pay that off. You’ll also pay nearly $16,000 doing it.
So ask yourself whether you’d rather spend that $300 on “stuff” like big-screen TVs to watch other people’s grand adventures, or on scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef or hiking to Machu Picchu yourself. The point: Before you do anything else, pay down credit cards.
2. Downsize Your Life
Gayl and I did the ultimate downsize, from a house on an 8,000-square-foot lot to a 32-foot sailboat with about 200 square feet of living space. We sold the house and anything that wasn’t useful at sea — i.e., everything. The house netted us the money to buy our boat — a swap to give any financial planner nightmares. The yard sale chipped in more than $1,000, much of it for things we hadn’t used in years.
We moved into a small apartment for a year before we left to save money and prepare the boat. By doing this, we saved about $450 every month. Before we left, we also sold our cars and netted close to $10,000 more for our travel fund.
If you rent, chances are you can always move into a smaller apartment and save money. Either way, downsizing sooner rather than right before your jump will not only save you money, it will also help you see how much unnecessary “stuff” you have been collecting and give you practice in living with less.
3. Never Eat Out, Ever
Everyone enjoys eating out. Maybe that’s why, in 2015, for the first time, Americans spent more on dining out than on groceries. Unfortunately, eating out will kill your world-travel dreams faster than a dengue fever outbreak.
To see why, consider a study by marketing company Restaurant Marketing Labs about the dining out habits of millennials, Americans born between 1980 to 2000. On average, they spend $174 per month on dining out, whereas other adults spend about $153 per month, the study found. That $150 will buy a lot of tacos in Mexico.
For this reason, Gayl and I stopped dining out a year before we set sail. We weren’t big fine diners to begin with, but the decision still saved us about $200 a month. Whenever we were tempted by the thought of white linen and a $15 glass of wine, we reminded ourselves that for every hour at a fine restaurant, we could spend about four days in a tropical port instead.
4. Commit to Your Goal 100 Percent
There’s a reason just about everyone dreams of quitting their jobs and bolting for the horizon, but so few do: It requires total, 100-percent, long-term commitment. The fact is that in our impatient, consumer-driven society, it’s easy to lose the ability to stay focused and stop impulsive buying. But to accomplish this goal, you’ll need to cut down on more than just dining out.
Like most people do when worried about money, we looked at our monthly expenses and found many surprising places to slash. We went to the library instead of bookstores. We never bought coffee, or water or other convenience items out. We cancelled the gym. We stopped buying any clothes that weren’t suited to the tropics. We always, always considered the opportunity cost to even the smallest purchase before swiping our debit card.
I even calculated how much we could save by turning vegetarian and giving up alcohol. The answer was a lot — about $240 a month. So I tried. But I confess, it lasted only a few months. Turns out that the stress and manual labor involved in preparing to sail into the sunset requires copious amounts of both protein and alcohol.
I did compromise with myself, however, and cut down to four vegetarian days a week and wine only on weekends. I estimated that saved about $1,200 in the final year before launch.
5. Travel Modestly
When most people think of traveling the world, they picture hotels, pools and fine dining. Best get those splashy images out of your head right now; traveling is different than vacationing.
In our case, our modest boat gave us free transport when the wind blew and free accommodation, not counting the $47,000 purchase price of the boat. Many times, we anchored for free only a few hundred yards from $2,000-a-night, over-the-water bungalows. Same view, same fish.
If you’re not the nautical kind, there are many other options. Four years before our sailing adventure, Gayl and I quit our jobs and traveled Australia for four months. We bought a $200 tent and paid $4 to $10 for oceanfront campsites each night. When acquaintances Brad and Sheena Van Orden decided to quit their jobs and travel, they took off in a 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon they named “Nacho.”
The point is, there are usually inexpensive options to hotels. Embrace them by remembering that even the dingiest hostel beats your cubicle most of the time.
6. Eat What the Locals Eat
Unless you’re planning an expedition to the South Pole, there will be other humans at your travel destination. They eat, and usually pretty well. So embrace the local customs. This will not only lower your food bill, but because food is such a vital part of understanding any culture, it will greatly enhance your travel experience.
Eating what the locals eat is also quite easy. One of our favorite destinations was French Polynesia, or Tahiti and her neighboring islands. We worried about the cost of food in Tahiti, as it’s a notoriously expensive place to travel.
What we found was that our diet not only improved, but cost a fraction of what it did back home. When I failed to catch or spear dinner, we bought fish like ahi and mahi-mahi from local fisherman for a fraction of what we paid here in the U.S.
We stuck to local fruits and vegetables and French bread loaves, or modest, family-run restaurants when we wanted to splurge. Doing that brought our daily food bill to below what nearby resort-goers paid for their morning pot of coffee.
7. Say Nay to the Naysayers
When you tell your friends and family of your two-year travel plan, most will tell you that you are absolutely bonkers. Brad Van Orden’s boss asked him to consider seeing a psychiatrist. In our case, our friends were probably right — after all, when we decided to chuck everything and sail away, we didn’t even know how to sail.
But that’s sort of the point: If we had listened, we never would have learned to sail in the first place. The naysayers will point to things like your career, building financial security and retirement savings.
Those are all valid points. But the fact is, if you do it right, landing on your feet again can be easier than you might imagine. The first time I quit and left to camp through Australia, I returned to a promotion. The second time I quit and left to sail the South Seas, I had a better position within three months after returning. So we say: Listen to your own passion, not others’ logic.
8. Go Now, With What You Have
Traveling for two years is like having a baby: You will never, ever be ready. In the years that Gayl and I prepared to take off, we met many couples far more prepared than we were who felt they needed more time before cutting the dock lines.
They would point to systems on their boats that we hadn’t even thought of yet and bemoan how much more work they needed. They would tell us we needed a new headsail, a better stovetop or newer rigging … the list went on.
One day, for work, I interviewed a businessman and sailor who said he, too, wanted to go cruising. He was single, a better sailor than I was, had a cruise-ready 60-foot yacht and a net worth of about $50 million. I asked him what he was waiting for. He grimaced, looked me right in the eye, and said, “If I wait five years, I’ll have a better boat, and my company will be worth $500 million.”
Later, in the Marquesas Islands, I met a man who had just sailed his 21-foot, engineless sloop 3,000 miles from Cabo San Lucas. He was smiling and happily chasing a wild chicken for dinner. I guessed his net worth to be about $4, but he was there.
9. Work While You Travel
Fortunately, the sale of our house provided the funding we needed to travel modestly for two years. I did some writing, but not much — avoiding writing is what writers do best. However, many travelers we met were funding their trips by working as they went. Whether they were computer programmers, graphic designers or business consultants, it wasn’t hard for many to earn the little money they needed to keep their dream alive.
It seems to be getting easier to work remotely all the time. Sites like Upwork.com are creating opportunities for travelers to find employers from wherever they can get internet reception. Upwork alone lists 2,700 skills, or types of work needed.
Many countries also offer working holiday visas. These are mainly available to 18 to 30-year-olds and do have other restrictions. But they can allow you to travel and work in countries for up to two years. Countries offering these include Australia, New Zealand, Chile, France, Italy, Japan and many more.
10. Have a Return-to-Reality Fund
On the cold November morning after my return from cruising, I woke up on a blow-up mattress in a friend’s den next to a pregnant wife — yes, mine. Looking back, I wish we had a little better plan for how we would return to our landlubber life.
The one thing we did right is not spend all our money during the two-year period. Not because of a plan, I admit, but because traveling didn’t cost nearly as much as I had anticipated. Call it our return-to-reality money or a rainy day fund, it bought us time to get back on our feet.
Kate Homes, a certified financial planner and founder of Belmore Financial, as well as a frequent traveler, recommended putting 20 percent of your pre-travel income toward a fund for your return. “I would advise people to have enough money to get them by for six months on their return,” she said, likening it to an emergency fund.
Remember, she added, you’ll need to find a place to live, possibly buy a car and look presentable for job interviews. True enough, and probably just scary enough to have you thinking of taking to the road for another few years.