How I Saved Enough Money to Take a Gap Year

Wondering how to take a gap year when you need to fund it yourself? This author shares how she afforded her gap year.

How much does it cost to travel the world?

Many people have asked me how I had the resources to quit my job to travel solo for more than a year at age 26. As with anything, it depends where you go and what you do. Fifteen months in five Westernized countries cost me about $13K, including flights. But it certainly doesn’t even have to cost that much to live and travel abroad.

It took me only two years of full-time work to save up for my travel. During that time, I saved more than $25K, invested $15K in my retirement accounts, and paid off $10K of college loans — all while living in Washington, D.C. and earning $50K annually (I share my salary here as context for these numbers).

Although I worked hard and made compromises, it also took support from others and some fortunate circumstances. This article will describe how I built my savings and how I reduced my travel costs. I hope this helps anyone considering how to take the leap to travel.

Lifestyle hacks

While working full-time and saving money before my travels, I lived in Northwest Washington, D.C. I lived in a four-bedroom group house in an unassuming neighborhood. I paid 30 percent less than the average rent for a modest two-bedroom apartment, and probably half of what I would have paid for a room in a luxury apartment. Before that, I lived with my parents and then a cousin for a while. I only contributed a few hundred dollars per month to them for “rent” — certainly a family discount I am grateful for. I recognize my privilege here — I’m lucky to have family connections for affordable housing in a major city, and to have access to a job that paid good wages.

I lived simply while meeting my basic needs. My office had a tiny gym in its basement, so I used that instead of joining a gym. I worked a monthly shift at an organic food co-op to access discounted local produce and bulk grains. I even hacked my yoga habit: I volunteered weekly at a studio in exchange for unlimited free yoga. I rarely ate out. I thrift-shopped for most of the clothes I needed. I bought furniture from Craigslist and sold what I no longer needed. I never owned a car. I biked everywhere I could, took the bus when I couldn’t, and tried to resort to Uber only when it was late or if I’d been partying. I attempted to steer socializing to potlucks with friends or free city events. I had everything I needed and never felt like my life was lacking.

Travel budgeting

Once I was ready to leave home and see the world, I settled on a $15K budget, or about $1,250 a month. It turns out that was a ton of money — in countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, for instance, travelers can live quite comfortably for less $500 a month.

I estimated that $15K would fund a work-free year of simple living and flights with some room for enjoying food and must-see tourist attractions. I preserved the rest of my savings as a cushion so that I could afford to live on my own when I came back to the States, especially if I didn’t already have a job lined up.

When you budget your trip, figure out which aspects are important for you to splurge on and which parts you’re okay to skimp on. For example, some people would invest in good transportation; flying between places and taking quicker trains and buses. Others might be foodies and invest in eating in nice places. Others will invest in quality accommodations, attractions, or extreme sports.

Where you travel is as important to your wallet as how you travel. Considering this point will make your money stretch. I spent an actual average of $900 a month ($30 per day) on my travels. One reason I spent so much, despite my cost-cutting measures, was that I was mainly in expensive Western countries and tourist areas (New Zealand, Australia, and the USA). 

Work exchanges

I used the website Workaway to work in exchange for free accommodations (and sometimes food) during five of my 15 months on the road. Work exchange websites like Workaway and HelpX are comparable to WWOOF-ing, minus the organic farming. I paid a $40 annual fee to set up a Workaway profile and browse listings, complete with reviews from past Workawayers.

Once accepted to a listing, you simply show up, do the work, and live free! Through Workaway alone, I estimate that I saved about $4,500 in room and board costs. I never worked more than 25 hours a week during my work exchanges and had plenty of time to pursue my hobbies, explore the local area, and hang out with my coworkers.

Volunteering with a non-profit organization

The other three months I spent in a work exchange were technically volunteering. I lived with a group of religious sisters while volunteering at a daycare center for disabled children. I’m not advocating for volunteer work only for the money benefit, of course. I chose to volunteer with the sisters to facilitate my spiritual growth and to give back. Volunteering with the kids was both fun and challenging, and I got to experience a different culture and language (the center was in Mexico and mostly operated in Spanish).

Airline points credit card deals

While working full-time, I opened three credit cards with deals that each earned me airline miles. Those airline miles enabled me to travel for free on two trans-Pacific flights and a few other intercontinental routes. There were some tradeoffs, such as the ridiculously long layovers common for flights bought on points, and a few hundred bucks of fees for opening the cards. I probably redeemed about $3K of complementary flights, though, which made it well worth it.

Other ways to stretch your budget

I got a work and holiday visa in New Zealand, which allowed me to work part-time and subsidize my living costs with my wages. During my travels, I also spent a handful of nights Couchsurfing and six weeks total hosted by family and friends. Plan to pay hospitality forward by hosting travelers, family, and friends once you’ve returned home and have your own place again.

Finally, I happen to love camping and backpacking and did probably five weeks total of that while I traveled. Sleeping on the ground in the forest is typically cheaper than sleeping in a bed. This helped my budget, too.

As you can see, some simple changes in your current lifestyle and creativity could be all you need to build the savings to get you out of town for a few months — not to mention provide unforgettable experiences. Travel abroad is within reach and affordable if you are willing to think outside the box.

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