Archives For BREAK FREE

Entering the month of May meant we had survived eight months of nomadic living; no permanent place to lay our head at night, always in search of the next great camping site and a return to the basic needs and wants of life. Some people ask us what our favorite place has been while others ask us how we’ve survived that long in a tiny camper without killing each other, both very valid questions!

We were lucky enough to catch up with many friends in April and this continued into May as we headed to Portland. We spent a few days with a friend there who just happened to have an extra apartment! We also made a side trip to catch up with family for a few days in Colorado and Oklahoma before heading north… to the last great frontier… Alaska! But first, we must cover May.

Total May Cost: $4,044
Total days in the camper: 21
Total days out of camper: 10
Cost per day: $130
States Visited: Oregon, Washington… and British Columbia, Canada!
Total Miles: 2,400 (+ 4,600 side trip)

Summary

Our expenses were higher in May as we prepared for our northern exposure and made a fun side trip to catch up with family we hadn’t seen in five months. To lessen the impact of the extra mileage on the 4Runner, we rented a car in Portland that was more comfortable and had much better gas mileage. This paid off as in total we drove almost 5,000 miles in ten days… I’m sure the rental car company wouldn’t have agreed to our $18/day if they knew we were driving that far*. We saved a lot of money on campsites because we stayed with our friend in Portland and also stayed with family for a few days. I broke out the side trip costs just so they don’t distort the other categories too much, but I like to keep all expenses in the totals just so you have a realistic expectation of what this trip will cost us (with surprises and all). Here are the details:

Spending Details

The Good

The best part of Oregon – which is a similar theme to our entire trip – was catching up with friends who we hadn’t seen in a long time. In Portland, we caught up with a former co-worker and friend from my Accenture and HP days (when I actually had a job). He moved his family to Portland a few years ago from Houston and really likes his new city, so we were excited to see it… and also excited to use his extra apartment which he hadn’t rented out yet! He let us stay in it for as long as we wanted, but our need for tortured travel meant we only stayed two weekends on either side of our extra road trip.

Let’s talk Portland first. Sure, there are shows making fun of it like “Portlandia”, but it actually does a decent job of pointing out quirks of the city’s inhabitants. It’s full of nice and interesting people.. and yes, things like four people stopping at a four way stop and waiting for an hour as they all try to wave the other people on really could happen here. But don’t let the niceness fool you, we also talked to people who had friends lower themselves off the main bridge in town to block the oil company (I believe Exxon) from disembarking on their mission to explore and map oil in the Arctic Ocean. These are people who are nice for the right reasons!

We really loved our friend’s neighborhood in Portland, the Sellwood area. It was obviously designed in a different age when houses were neighborly instead of compound-y. The front porches were active with friendly chats and only a few blocks away are some of the famous Portland food carts. You can walk down to the river with a large public park and even an amusement park, or catch up with neighbors at “share square”, a designated street crossing where each corner involved sharing: a tiny library, neighborhood bulletin board, small playground and a hangout area. It also helps to be there in the right time of the year, there was some rain, but it was offset with beautiful sunny days that highlighted the streets full of flowers. It reminded us of our former beloved neighborhood in New Orleans.

We parked Penny Lane and the 4Runner in Portland while we made a quick side trip to Oklahoma to celebrate my dad’s birthday. Sure, it’s hard to call a 28 hour drive a ‘side trip’, but with a rented hybrid including satellite radio, we enjoyed it! We also stopped on the way back in Boulder to spend a few nights with family there. It was nice to have real showers and real beds for a while, but the north was calling and we returned.

As we continued on, we left Portland and headed into the interior to explore some of the state and national parks. We first headed into Bend to see what the city was all about. I previously discovered a love for Deschutes’ “Black Butte Porter” beer and when I found out they were in Bend, that became a must visit. We spent an afternoon sampling beer and food before heading to their brewery and taking a full tour. This was on a workday (I think Tuesday) so let’s say it was for scientific taste-testing and to make sure I agreed with company standards. It passed.

We based at a state park south of Bend and spent four days exploring the area. We first went north to Smith Rocks State Park and watched as the landscape which had already turned from the sub-tropical rainforest of the coast, to a drier mountain climate in Bend, change again to an almost desert like landscape of Northeast Oregon. Smith Rocks State Park is centered around desert mountains and is a world renowned climbing site. We headed out on a 5-6 mile hike with Lucy and little did we know, would become very important in someone else’s day.

As we rounded a corner on the steep ascent, we saw a lady with a big dog standing next to the trail. The dog was out of control, so we stalled a bit hoping our mountain selfies would give her enough time to move on. It wasn’t for our own safety, but more because we don’t always know how Lucy will react. Sure, we think she’s the best dog in the world, but after she penned a little dog earlier in Oregon, we have been a little more careful!

Okay, I guess I should tell that story first – we were hiking with her on a leash, when a little Jack Russell, off-leash, came charging at us from down the trail. We’ve adopted the approach of unleashed dogs are calmer because they’re not in “protector mode”, so we let go of Lucy. Lucy met charging little Jack like a Patriot missile, but Little Jack is apparently a little Napoleon as his owners told us afterwards, and Lucy wasn’t going to cower to his demands as she’s ten times bigger. Instead, she quickly flipped him on his back, penned him down and probably used some dog words not appropriate for the blog. We removed her and since we were in Oregon, the owners profusely apologized and refused to lay any of the blame on Lucy, even as we insisted it was partially her fault! Such nice people.

So yes, we’re sometimes hesitant with her, but back on Smith Rocks, the lady wasn’t budging. We headed up and as we approached her, we could see the fear in her face. She was dog-sitting for friends who were climbing the mountain and the large German-Shepard mix had taken control of the hike as it kept jumping at and scaring her. She asked if she could try walking with us and we agreed, hoping the wise and calm nature of Lucy would calm him. Instead, she growled at him and he submitted to the wise old lady. She continued along with us as we realized they would become new participants in our day. It was cool though, because it kept Kujo under control.

We ventured down the mountain and agreed to part ways as she could see her friends climbing and figured they would be down soon. We broke off the trail and had lunch while Lucy cooled off in the river. As we continued on, we could hear an obnoxious barking which echoed down the canyon and shortly after we saw the owner standing next to it. It was then Jocelyn realized it was our friend again. Kujo had totally taken over and our friend’s last resort was to tie him to a nearby tree and panic… she broke into full tears as she saw us coming. I’m not always good with hints, but I guess this one was clear enough. We told her we’d get Kujo back to their campsite so she could tie him up and wait there for the owners. I took his leash and he challenged me with a nip and bark – and Lucy nearly broke her leash away from Jocelyn trying to get over to him, but I got him back under control with some Cesar-like mind tricks**. We led him back to the campsite with no issues and a relieved (and soon to be quitting) babysitter found some peace.

Our next day trip was to Crater Lake National Park. We kept the camper at the state park in La Pine so we wouldn’t have to drag Penny Lane on the five hour round trip South. From previous research, we knew most of the park was still closed due to snowed in roads (even in mid-May!) but we still wanted to see the lake. As we approached the Rim Village, we saw parking lots boxed in with snow 15 feet high and crammed with cars and tourists excited to see the lake. We found a spot and hiked up the snow hill to see the view. It was a gorgeous deep blue panorama with reflecting clouds and a snow-covered crater.

It’s here I steal some content from the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He visited with his son and said something was wrong the place. It was just too perfect – like humanity had never been there. He said it would be better if they piled some beer cans around the rim or maybe even a giant beer can pile in the middle. We caught our view and spent just as much time watching the other tourists swarming the sides before heading back to their cars and checking Crater Lake off their list, just as we did.

The Bad

The only bad from May was our own damn fault. It was the lack of respect we gave to Washington. Maybe it was due to exhaustion caused by nine months of nomadic travel or maybe because we were getting excited for the last leg of our trip, but either way, we didn’t do Washington justice. The highlight is we stayed at casinos for five nights – which meant free stays – and since we had free stays, we of course had to gamble.. and guess what, we actually won on slots and craps! I much prefer losing because then my appetite for gambling is gone for a while, but it’s nice to have some income when you don’t get income.

We did see Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington and enjoyed some camping near it, but much of the park was still under snow. We headed to Olympic National Park afterwards but the casinos were kinda far so we didn’t do much exploring in the park. Actually, we drove to the national park campsite but didn’t have cell phone reception, so instead we opted for the casino which had free electric hook ups! It was also cold and rainy since we were back on the coast, so we weren’t having much of it. We hopped the ferry to Whidbey Island and stopped in Bellingham to stock up for our final northern leg. Our grocery expenses were higher due to this stock up, but the investment will surely pay for itself as we experience the much more expensive shopping in Canada and Alaska.

The Ugly

We’ve seen our share of poverty as we’ve traveled the US, and unfortunately the closer you are to Native American reservations, the more noticeable the poverty becomes. We saw this throughout the Southwest as well as up through California and Washington. But the extreme poverty wasn’t limited to reservations.

One of the more unsettling impoverished towns was Aberdeen, Washington. As soon as we rolled into town, we noticed things weren’t quite right. Our visit to Walmart was full of faces that seemed to tell stories beyond our comprehension, and driving through downtown made it more noticeable. The few buildings that weren’t boarded up housed government and social services. After a Google, we learned it used to be a thriving logging town, but after federal regulations made logging more difficult, business dried up. I’m not sure what happened as there was still lots of logging in Oregon and parts of Washington, so maybe there was more to the story than just that. The town is now plagued with poverty and opioid addiction, which doesn’t lead to a happy ending. It’s the same story playing out in many places in the US.

We ended May on a high note as we crossed the Canadian border and checked into the Sheraton in downtown Vancouver. I still have hotel points, so we decided to spend two nights resting and soaking up as much hot water, wifi and tv as we could. Lucy did well as an urban dog forced to use sidewalks as a bathroom and riding elevators 27 stories… she’s so refined.

We made it to Canada. It almost feels like we did this entire trip just so we could make the last drive into Canada and Alaska. The unknown challenges and dangers were outweighed by the possible thrills and experiences, so the trip was a go. Google Maps said it was 48 hours of driving to Anchorage, so we rest and make it our mission in June.

*Okay, I have to admit it. I was actually upgraded to a nicer hybrid for an extra $8/day… usually I’m the King of don’t-try-to-upgrade-me, but I did some quick math to determine it was worth it… even though a little piece of me died. 

**Actually, there were no Cesar (the dog-trainer) mind tricks, I instead used my mom’s old farm trick, stepping on his back feet when he tried to jump on me. He didn’t like that, but it got him under control!

Meeting up with friends is always one of the best parts of the road trip!

Mt. Rainier National Park

Crater Lake National Park – I love the bottom pic because it looks nearly the same right side up as upside down!

Snow in La Pine State Park, Deschutes Brewery and Smith Rocks State Park

Silver Falls State Park is probably one of our favorite state parks. The nine mile trail takes you around some of the most gorgeous waterfalls in the area.

Mt. Hood National Park

Our ways of living and cultural norms have changed. As a cynic, you can blame it on brainwashing from the capitalistic way of life that makes us work most of our lives to try and get by or gain more wealth, or you can describe it more innocently as the natural progression of civilization towards a more productive approach to living where we all have a better way of life. Either way, it has manifested itself in what I view as two opposing ways of life: Living versus “making a living”.

Simply put, living is what humanity did for tens of thousands of years and it usually meant just trying to survive. Our life was focused on gathering enough food to survive the winter, keeping a sufficient supply of water, protecting ourselves from mean animals and mean people, and if all goes right, having babies. It was a hard life where the average lifespan was half of what it is today, but it was a life living in accordance with nature and there was usually much less “work”.

Making a living is something we were able to change thanks to capitalism in the last three centuries. With a more structured civilization combined with advancements in production and manufacturing, an individual or group of individuals were able to make a surplus of goods. This allowed others to focus on additional things, besides simply living, and created market places where we could buy everything we needed, and only needed money to do it. To make the money, we switched to making a living so we could have enough money for the living.

There are major benefits to this switch which have allowed for advancements in manufacturing, health care and technology and have provided a longer life span for most people along with more opportunities for education, societal advancement and healthy living. But there must be some kind of trade-off, right?

These thoughts came to mind while we were walking through Redwoods National Park in northern California. Some of the trees are over two thousand years old and are the tallest living things on Earth. Walking through them brings awe and serenity as you tilt your head backwards as far as you can without falling over just in an attempt to see the tops. The native tribes lived in the areas for tens of thousands of years before they were pushed out, hardly making a negative impact on the land. They most certainly respected the giant redwoods as important creatures in their ecosystem and did little to impact their existence. They were “living” off the land and appreciated what mother nature offered.

Then the Europeans and early American settlers came around, looked up at the massive redwoods and thought, “Holy crap, I could make a lot of money if I cut those down, sawed them up, floated them down the river and sold them.” The entire coast was filled with these redwoods, but after the loggers’ “productivity”, there’s only small areas remaining (estimated at 5% of the original) that were protected by state and national parks. The land lost its value to people from a spiritual perspective and instead changed to a commodity that was only as valuable as what could be extracted from it.

This became even more evident when we visited the beautiful Silver Falls State Park in central Oregon where an eight mile hike takes you through pine forests and some of the most amazing waterfalls you’ll see in one compact area on this entire continent. It was once considered to become a national park, but it didn’t make the cut (put intended) because the hillsides surrounding the falls were described as graveyards of tree stumps.

We learned part of this from a video they showed which had a similar narrative as most of the Americas – native tribes lived there for centuries until they were pushed out by early settlers and corporate interests. This time it was the loggers who valued the land for the massive old growth pines that occupied most of it. Shortly after, it was fully logged and became a barren land with the same beautiful waterfalls cascading through a desert-like landscape. A fellow purchased the land to see if he could make some money off of it, but it was so barren that no one was interested in the waterfalls any longer. But he was entrepreneurial and found that he could charge a nickel to spectators to watch him push old cars off the 150+ foot falls!

Talk about a major change to the environment – from old growth forests with incredible falls to barren land marked by rusty old cars – in a matter of years! Luckily, someone had the sense to clean up the land up and let it reforest.

I get it, the western way of life is to make a living, and there’s no way we could all eat if we didn’t participate. But imagine how a Native American felt as she watched a single tree, then an entire forest of redwoods fall. I’m sure she would’ve been quite confused at why anyone would need to do that. Or how about the plains Indians who watched entire herds of American Bison killed for profit or only pleasure. It must have shocked them.

Can we have one without the other?

Unless you’ve won the jackpot or got rich through an inheritance, you’re going to have to make a living – at least for a while. You’ll need to find a good career where you can use your job as a tool and make as much money as you can. For most people, this will demand the rest of their life as they work to pay off their crap they continue buying.

But there is another way. What if you could make a living for 10-15 years while you save up enough money and invest so you can move on to living? When my parents left their jobs for retirement, they quickly left the working world behind and started exploring their hobbies. Gardening, reading, beekeeping, visiting family and traveling are some of their highlights. They no longer need to worry about making a living because they managed their money well and receive enough in pensions and social security to keep them going. They’re living and we all enjoy the benefits – especially the extra time and honey!

They had to wait closer to retirement age though. I don’t want to wait that long, I want to start living now. This is why we decided to take control of our money ten years ago, so we could go on with living today and why we’re currently exploring North American in our Airstream. We’ll make money again in the future, but we’re lucky that we’ll be able to decide the terms. I want our “making a living” to coincide with the way we want to live our lives… making a difference and helping others while enjoying what living has to offer.

April had a lot to contend with after the stellar March report of low spending and magnificent scenery. However, April had an Ace in the hole that made it an even more special month – meet-ups! We were lucky enough to meet up with Susan Cooper, the legendary blogger who’s helped me from the start, our friends from New Orleans, a friend in Roseville and a friend in Portland!

Total April Cost: $3,393
Total days in the camper: 27
Total days out of camper: 3
Cost per day: $113
States Visited: California, Oregon
Total Miles: 2,590

Summary

We started the month still reeling from the damage Penny Lane sustained during the drive into Yosemite, but the pain was tempered after we received an incredible camping spot for six days (without prior reservation) in the National Park. From there, we were off to all of our friend meet-ups as we finished California and by the end of the month would end up in Portland. Three of the visits were with friends who lived there, but one visit was with friends who were flying into meet us in wine country. They agreed to meet us, but with one condition, they couldn’t be blamed for a high spending report! Our $109/day spending surprised us as it was on the low-end, so even though I hid a few expenses during our wine country week, we still came in below expectations!

Spending Details

The Good

At this point in the journey we had spent three months exploring the southwest and only conversing with strangers who we met along the way. This can sometimes result in instant friendships as is did with neighbors in Joshua Tree and Death Valley, but more often than not, it doesn’t. But April was guaranteed friend time as we were to meet up with friends in various cities as well as friends who flew in to share a vacation.

But first, came Yosemite National Park. We’ve been fortunate to see many beautiful places, but this park ranks at or nearly at the very top! It’s a great one to visit even if your only plan is to drive around and never put on hiking shoes. From the towering monoliths of El Capitan and Half Dome, to some of the tallest waterfalls in North America, there’s beauty every direction you turn, but there’s even more beauty when you make it up some trails. We completed 4-5 pretty good hikes ranging from five to ten miles to see more waterfalls and get off the valley floor, but there’s still so much more we could’ve done if we were later in the season and snow didn’t block our paths. If you’ve never been, you should definitely add it to your list.

After we left Yosemite, we coordinated a dinner meet up with an old coworker and friend who lives in Roseville, California. We worked together for a few years and occasionally met up when we traveled for work, but we hadn’t ever meet each other’s significant others. I’ve said it from the beginning, but one of the most rewarding parts of the trip is to meet friends in their home and their city, people who we may have never seen again if we didn’t arrange it. We had a great dinner and got to tour their newly remodeled home. It was nice to get reconnected back to a former life, even if it was only for a night.

The next day we arranged to meet up with one of my favorite virtual people who I had never met before, Susan Cooper. We connected six or seven years ago as we were both starting our blogs and were trying to figure out how to make them big time. You know, those blogs you read about where the creators are making millions of dollars posting pictures of their dog. Well, neither of us have made our million, but we’ve been lucky to meet some interesting people through the process. We met Susan and her husband in one of their favorite little spots outside of Sacramento. They were incredibly nice and our only regret was we didn’t get to spend more time, but they graciously invited us to stay with them next time we’re through. That’s one thing we thought we’d have plenty of when we started this trip – time – but as we always do, we made ourselves rush as we squeezed them in between Yosemite and wine country.

Up next, we headed to Healdsburg in Sonoma County with our friends who were flying in from New Orleans to meet us in one of their favorite spots. You’d think there would be amazing little campgrounds everywhere in wine country, but surprisingly, there’s not! We ended up in a “full-timer” RV park where our campers were stacked in like row houses and Lucy had to search the whole lot for some grass*. It wasn’t the serene woodsy campsite where we wanted to show our friends how we lived with one in nature, but it was a place to park it at least.

We spent five days exploring the Sonoma area and were lucky enough to meet some of their friends who they knew from their many previous trips. From the “father of organic wine-making” Lou Preston (you should try his win, it’s really good) to some really great artists, we got to meet some really interesting people. We were even lucky enough to get an invite to a dinner at one of their houses with great conversation – and more great wine. It’s so amazing that people will take in strangers and make them feel so warm.

After all of the friend stops, we had two weeks to make it up the coast and into Portland where Jocelyn would have to fly out at the end of the month. We spent four days at one of our most amazing campsites yet in the King’s Range National Conversation Area, which lies within the Lost Coast. It’s one of the most rugged coastlines we’ve ever seen and the difficulty of traveling there meant we were nearly the only people at the site. We hiked up the coast a few miles to see the northern most colony of elephant seals and explore the natural beauty where the mountains meet the coast.

One of my most anticipated parks came next, Redwoods National Park! I’m obsessed with big trees, and the tallest trees on earth didn’t disappoint. We had some really fun hikes within the state and national parks and really enjoyed getting to spend time with these ancient wonders. Yes, I’m one of those weirdos who talks about trees like they’re people.

As mentioned earlier, we were pretty happy with our overall spending. We’ve established a new “west coast” norm which seems to be around $40/day cheaper than the east coast. Our food budget was one of the lowest yet as we have seemed to maximize our meal efficiency with Trader Joe’s, but as we head into Canada and Alaska, these number will quickly shoot up – unless of course, we can catch our own fresh salmon**.

The Bad

All of our expense items were pretty well under control, even though I laundered some extra money that was spent our vacation-trip. That’s the good part of being the trip accountant, I know how to hide expenses when necessary.

We also had some additional travel expenses as Jocelyn flew back to Dallas to emcee event at our alma mater, Oklahoma State. I stayed back at a state park just south of Portland with Penny Lane and Lucy as it was too difficult to find sitters for both of them that would’ve allowed me to travel. It turns out, we probably picked one of the worst parks for me to spend six days.

We’ve stayed in parks before where it was pretty obvious people were living in them full time. Most public parks (state or national) limit the amount of time you can stay because of that exact reason – they don’t want people moving in full time. But as we’ve learned, not all campgrounds enforce it.

As we’ve been exposed to more socioeconomic diversity on the trip, we’ve definitely gained empathy for people in tough situations. People who lost their jobs, lost their homes and are doing everything they can to hold on. However, we haven’t gained empathy for people who aren’t honest. We had a previous strange experience outside of New Orleans where we had a load of laundry stolen from the dryer, so our tolerance for this was already low.

Luckily, at this park we didn’t have anything stolen, but there was more than one time we caught some of the “locals” in the park surveying other people’s property, which is usually the first step of “the steal”. There was an unsavory crew of 3-4 barely functioning RV’s where people were always loitering around. I’d walk by and say hi, but usually no more response than an untrusting stare back at me. It wasn’t real cool, but I wasn’t worried enough that it made me leave… I’m pretty comfortable in protecting my own property thanks to by big companion – Lucy!

It was more of a nuisance that reminded me of the life in the real world.

The Ugly

I don’t think I have an ugly for this month. The expenses were under control, we had great times with friends and we saw beautiful scenery.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you about Oregon. The southern coast is filled with incredible beaches where beautiful stretches of sand meet the rugged coast. It’s filled with state parks that presumably get packed in the summer, but during our visits we had miles of coastline seemingly to ourselves. Lucy loved running up and down the beach, chasing birds and seeing what smelly stuff she could find.

I guess the only thing that could’ve been better was the weather – so maybe I do have an ugly. Everywhere we went around California and Oregon we heard about their record rainfall and snowfall this year. We felt it as we had many days in a row when we didn’t see the sunshine, but instead a lot of rain and cold. We had at least three to four weeks of this damp, cold weather that made us ready to get off the coast. Portland was our first trip inland, but I’ll cover that in next month’s review. The good news is we’ve found warmer and dryer temperatures now!

 

*Interestingly, as we’re on the west coast, there’s many places where it’s easier to find “grass” than grass
**It’s funny, because everywhere we go we wish we brought our fishing poles. But then we remember we’re not big fisherman, and we usually end up giving up pretty quickly because we aren’t any good at it

Friend time — the pictures on top are in wine country with our friends from New Orleans. The picture on the bottom is with Susan Cooper and her husband!

The Lost Coast! This pristine land in northern California is a protected conservation area with ~26 miles of untouched coastline.

Up the coast from California to Oregon – beautiful beaches

Pictures from Redwoods State and National Parks

The top picture is from Mendocino, CA – the place we’ll retire to (if we ever get rich); the other two are from the California coast

Yosemite National Park

More from Yosemite National Park – just beautiful!

I’m three years delayed in posting this because I was debating if I want to expose this data… although if you really wanted to know how much we spent on our around the world trip, you could’ve just added up the expenses from each country spending report! However, I came across the data again and thought it would be helpful to post for others who are considering a similar trip.

In 2013, my wife and I went on a round the world trip of our dreams where we rode elephants in Laos, visited the incredible ruins of Angkor Wat, camper vanned in New Zealand for a month, experienced the Northern Lights and did many other things we never thought we’d have the fortune to do. In 250 days we traveled across 5 continents, 25 countries and took over 52 flights.

We’re more “explorers” than “beach bums”. We had a long list of places we wanted to see with limited time, so instead of lying on a beach for two months in Thailand (which would’ve been very cheap), we averaged a new city every 2-3 days and a new country every ten days. We moved pretty fast, but we did have a few extended stays in countries to catch our breath.

That’s one major thing to consider if you’re using this information to determine if you can afford to take a similar trip. Many people do year-long backpacking trips on a much smaller budget than ours by focusing only on a few countries or areas. But if you want to see the entire world in 250 days with two people, it might look something like this. Just like I do with all of my spending summaries, lets get into the numbers.

Total Trip Cost: $56,096
Cost per day: $224
Total days on the road: 250
Travel stats: 5 continents, 25 countries, 52+ flights

Summary

My wife and I both had dreams of traveling the world, but they always seemed similar to my dreams of becoming a professional baseball player as a kid – something that sounded cool but that I wasn’t willing to put the time in to make happen! However, when her work contract was coming to an end in 2012, and I was becoming restless at work, we fell into a dangerous spiral of not calling each other’s bluff as we started ‘planning’ our trip. “Want to travel the world? Sure! Should we just quit our jobs? I’m fine with it! Then I’ll book the first flight. Sounds good to me!”

Neither of us wanted to be the reason it didn’t happen, so our trip started taking form. I researched and realized we needed at least six months to get all of our vaccinations and plans in order. Luckily, I was granted a one year unpaid leave at work which lessened the stress considerably since I had a job to come back to, and then we sold our house in New Orleans which took less than a week to go under contract. This was actually going to happen.

The trips plans started with an “okay, where do you want to go?” where Jocelyn named many countries that sounded like they were on terrorist watch lists or you only hear about when the bird flu breaks out, but it was good logic since we wanted to go now before we had kids. We decided to go west to east and booked our first one-way ticket to New Zealand, with a nice ten day layover in French Polynesia! From there, we figured it out as we went and made changes as we talked to other travelers who filled us in on must visit destinations.

It was a lot of money to spend, especially for a money guy like myself who knows how bigly it could be in twenty years when invested right, but we made the decision to do it because we also knew we would probably have many more limitations in twenty years and this might be our only shot until we’re 80. So we committed, and luckily, we were able to pay for the entire trip with the profit we earned from renovating and then selling our New Orleans house. Let’s get into the details.

Spending Details

The Good

The “best good” was that we took the trip. We didn’t leave it as one of those things we ‘want to do someday’ that never happens. As a few years have passed since we returned home, I’ve forgotten some of the memories along the way, but I’ve also continued to gain from the perspective we received from the trip. We realized how lucky we were to win the birth lottery. Instead of born into a slum in the developing world where our best hope would be good health, we were born into a world of privilege and opportunity. We were born into one of the most powerful countries in the world where other people would sacrifice their own life just to give their family a chance to live there.

We also realized how lucky we were to have each other. When we came back to our jobs after traveling, we saw our incredible fondness for each other fade as career and life demands stacked up. I explained it to a friend that I never had before understood how old couples could be so in love with each other, but the trip taught me how. I could count on one hand the number of times I was apart from Jocelyn for more than one hour, and neither of us liked being apart (for too long). It’s like we had squeezed decades of life into a single year. We depended on each other so much, sometimes for survival, and we were able to see the incredible strengths of each other. When I was very sick with food poisoning for a few weeks in SE Asia, it was Jocelyn who took the trip planning over and took care of me. When the taxi mafia in Jordan tried to rip us off and I firmly stood up to them, it was her who had my back and helped us get our (cheaper) ride.

And the things we saw. From some of the world’s most incredible archaeological sites like Petra, Angkor Wat, Bagan or even Jerusalem, to the stunning natural vistas in New Zealand, Nepal, Turkey or Iceland (and of course, the Northern Lights). We saw one of the richest areas in the world in New Delhi, India with slums just adjacent. We gained perspective from a non-centric US view, like the “Museum of American Atrocities” in Vietnam and learning facts like we bombed the hell out of Cambodia and Laos at the same time as the Vietnam war, making Laos the most bombed country per capita (although a new country might have taken that honor by now).

And the people we met. People living the simplest lives in Myanmar, barely getting by on what they could pluck from the land and wheeling barrels of water from charity-sponsored wells back to their shacks. Or one of our scariest times when we took the public bus in Jordan and thought we might die, but instead found one of the nicest people of the trip who talked with us for over an hour as we both laughed and bonded over no common language, but instead one we had to decipher from each other. Or the hotel manager in Siem Reap who practiced English every day on the computer while fully committed to his job, but leaving his three year old girl at home alone because they couldn’t afford a babysitter.

From an expense perspective, it was pretty interesting to take a look a few years later. The most surprising low expenses to me are for lodging and food. It’s pretty amazing we only spent a combined $30 per day on food, but that ranged from a less than a dollar for Pad Thai in Bangkok to over $30 for the cheapest lunch we could find in the UK. The food in SE Asia is cheap, but also some of the most incredible food we’ve ever had. It blew me away that each country has a fairly unique flavor developed through mixed cultures (like the French-inspired Vietnamese food) and availability of ingredients. Their use of herbs was delicious and amazing.

We typically stayed in a range of properties from lower end hotels to nice hotels thanks to my Starwood hotel points. At first, we thought we’d stay in hostels the whole time to keep costs down, but after seeing the price for two people and the conditions of some of them, we opted to stay in hotels instead. We didn’t want to be those dirty backpackers wearing hammer pants* and growing out trustafarian dredlocks. It is amazing how far $25/night can go in countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, with beautiful hotels nicely appointed with plush pillows and soaking tubs. We stayed around 50 free nights at Starwood properties around the world thanks to hotel points, which usually included free breakfast (thanks to my hotel status) and oftentimes a lounge for evening drinks and dinner.

The experiences and our perspective change will last a lifetime, and will continue to define our future. If not for that trip, we probably wouldn’t be on the road today on another one year sabbatical, and there’s no telling what wouldn’t have happened in the future.

The Bad

Entitled citizens from the US have earned a negative reputation across the world for decades, and we experienced our fair share of bombastic party-goers ruining pristine beaches in Moorea and dirty American backpackers supporting the drug culture in Vang Vieng, Laos. However, we also learned there are other countries who also complete for the most annoying travelers! Whether it be the Chinese whose new found wealth have allowed them to travel the world in swarms of tour buses while they disregard cultural sensitives like climbing Uluru, or the Australians who treat the beaches of Bali like Texans and Floridians treat Cancun (I can say that because I’m a Texan). But who knows, locals probably frowned on us a number of times as well**.

From an expense perspective, the bad comes with our total spending on flights, over $16,000! However, when you begin to break the number down, it’s not so bad. We took over 50 flights (so 100 total) which makes the total cost per flight $160. That includes major one-way flights like LA to Auckland, Beijing to Vienna and London to the US (with a stopover in Iceland). I spent a lot of time researching around the world flights, but most of them only included 10-15 legs, which would’ve meant we’d paying for another ~30 flights on our own… and their price wasn’t much cheaper than our overall amount! Flights in Australia and SE Asia were very cheap, even when booking only a few days in advance.

The flights also saved us a lot of time. Although my favorite phrase was, “we have more time than money”, we still took shortcuts when the price was right, like a 3 hour flight to Kathumandu, instead of an 18 hour bus ride that would be quite dangerous.

If we would’ve slowed down and visited fewer cities, we probably could’ve cut the costs in half. However, the big one-way flights which you’ll want to take (unless you want to ride on a cargo ship for three months across the Pacific) account for the biggest chunks of cost. In fact, the three big one-way flights listed above were $4,418 just by themselves. You’ll have to spend some money to do these big trips, the key is to be smart with your budget and know where you can make trade-offs.

The “Travel Admin” category is also quite scary at over $5,000. This category includes things like immunizations, clothing and supplies for the trip, visas and a few medical expenses along the way. We only got two visas in advance, India and China, as they required quite a bit more paperwork, but the rest of the visas were fairly easy to obtain in advance or on arrival (but that was three years ago, no telling how it’s all changing now with our present happenings).

The Ugly

While it’s tempting to add food poisoning as an ugly, I’m reluctant because that’s just a thing that often comes along with travel***. I could also talk about how we got scammed numerous times, but that also comes along with the travel! We never got robbed, never experienced acts of violence or even much rudeness and the scams were all for pretty small amounts. I call that a win.

However, there was one ugly that bit us a few times… currency exchanges. While traveling Australia and New Zealand, their currency was at one of the highest rates ever against the US dollar, so their already expensive countries stung even more. We tried to keep our daily costs down by cooking our own food – I even once smuggled a steak dinner I cooked in the camper, into the hotel. However, the big items like flights, camper van rentals and fuel really added up.

Our biggest ugly came in Australia when we rented a camper van for two weeks. They charged a $5,000 deposit which is just ridiculous, but then they took over six weeks to refund it. That gesture was crappy enough, but what made it even worse was there was a major change in currency valuation over those two weeks which meant we got over $500 fewer dollars back than the original $5k charge! It was very messed up and we even wrote a post on it where many others have joined in their hate for Appollo camper vans in Australia (I’d recommend not using them).

We also had some crazy experience like the taxi mafia above, we were nearly denied boarding because we didn’t have proof of onward travel when leaving Australia (although I lied our way out of it), and we (mostly me) had some really nasty bouts of food poisoning which explains why I seem to have lost half myself through SE Asia. Come to think of it, we probably shouldn’t have gone in the cage and sat with the adult tigers.

 

But the uglies just weren’t that ugly and the scaries weren’t that scary. I just read Orwell’s 1984 and he wrote, “If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself…”. That’s one of the biggest takeaways. Places like Vietnam, Myanmar, Jordan and Morocco sound scary for a Westerner. They sound scary because our government and media make them sound scary – sometimes purposefully and sometimes not. But in the end, they’re made up of people who have hopes and ambitions like the rest of us, who favor peace over war, who want their kids to experience a better life and who love to smile and laugh.

In fact, that’s the same thing we’re learning on our current trip. I’m writing this from an Oregon State Park that obviously has quite a few people living in their campers or cars full-time. Not the people who have the super-cool Instagram accounts and are doing this to experience freedom, but the people who are down on their luck. Their old beat up cars and worn clothes give them a dark appearance and my instant reaction is to ignore them and hope they’ll do the same for me, just as I would’ve done with someone begging for money. But when we’re allowed contact and discover the truth, we realize they’re just like us. They have hopes and dreams for themselves, ambition to make their kids’ lives better than their own and they don’t plan to be living in a camper forever. They’re just like us.

 

*Technically, they’re not hammer pants, but they look like it. They’re found all over SE Asia, but mostly in Thailand where young backpackers make them their choice outfit. They’re just a step above sweatpants. We did buy a couple of pair but mostly wore them where they should be worn – indoors (like sweatpants)
**While in Laos, I learned how to say hello – “Sabadee”. From then on, I’d always excitedly greet locals who seemed to appreciate it… but they might have also hated it
***Although food poisoning hitting when you’re on a small boat on Inle Lake in the middle of rural Myanmar, with the next stop being a “Bermese cat house” where you get to play with ~30 cats who are mostly just staring at you should shouldn’t be on your bucket list

 

Petra… absolutely incredible

We saw the Northern Lights on the second to last night of our trip!!

Tigers in Thailand

A Burmese lady smoking a handmade cigarette in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

How would you react if a King Cobra came out of a basket? I think Jocelyn handled it pretty well!

Sunset over Bagan, Myanmar. There are over 4,000 temples dotted across the desert landscape.

The Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand

The Glacier Lagoon in Iceland

Believe it or not, this castle was actually built in the middle of the lake in India!

Our best pose at the Taj Mahal… our tour guide insisted we take a “romantic” picture

Kids playing in Inle Lake, Myanmar… this is when my stomach started rumbling…

We learned a lot of patience on the trip… with so many delays, canceled flights and detoured routes.

Monks laughing in Myanmar

As I’m writing this, I’m looking through the window of our vintage Airstream trailer and onto the beautiful black sandy beaches of the Lost Coast in Northern California. The foggy mountains provide an incredible backdrop as the waves continually pound the coast. I keep thinking we never could’ve done all of this if not for the sacrifices and hard work over the last ten years. This is how I went from $50,000 in debt, to us having enough money to do this. I’ll share these steps with you, so you can do the same.

Here are the six basic steps:

  1. Complete a current assessment
  2. Track your spending
  3. Create a spending plan
  4. Monitor plan and adjust as necessary
  5. Save some money
  6. Attack your debt

1. Complete a current assessment

The first thing you need to do is complete a current assessment, which is nothing more than a quick balance sheet to see where you stand with your assets and liabilities. To do this, gather all financial documents relating to debt (mortgage statements, credit card, student loan, personal loans, etc.) which should include amount owed, interest rates, and minimum payments. Take a look at my example current assessment and begin filling it in with your information.

1.  Fill out the liabilities section of your current assessment with all debts including short term and long term (mortgage)
2.  Fill out the assets section.  List out the money in bank accounts, stock accounts, and retirement accounts

Update the spreadsheet to include all of your short term assets and liabilities for now, so you can see where you stand. After you do this, you can also read how to track your net worth and fill out the long term section as well.

2.  Track your spending

Can you tell me how much you spent on groceries last week? How much did you spend on going out to eat or little luxuries like Starbucks? If you’re anything like me, this step will be incredibly enlightening because you’ll be surprised to see where the dollars are going.

There are a few different ways to track your spending. When I went through this step, I downloaded credit cards statements from the previous two years, categorized each item in a spreadsheet and totaled them up. This gave me a good idea of what was happening with my money, and it wasn’t pretty.

The scary part was that in 2005 which was the first year I went back and calculated my spending, I was making $45,000 a year, which equals $2,561 per month. However,I was spending $2,588 per month which meant I was in the hole by $17 every month… but actually it was much larger than that when accounting for all of the taxes, insurance, etc taken out of my check! I was obviously financing a lot of my living with debt.

There are a few ways to track your spending:

1. Old School: write down every expense on a notebook and carry it around with you each day. You can then add these up manually or into a spreadsheet. Keep each item under a general “category” and try to limit to 6-8 categories total. 

2. Automate: use a site like mint.com which links all of your credit cards and will create a nice history for you

Most credit card websites will also have information categorized, but it’s a little harder as you can’t get them all in once place. Here’s an easy spreadsheet to use a tracker, you can print it off or use it in Excel/Google Sheets Spending Tracker.

If you’re serious about getting your financial act together, don’t skip this step. Most people will think they have a good handle on their spending, but after this step they’ll realize they’re spending like a drunk on Bourbon Street*.

3.  Create a spending plan (Budget)

Now, you must tell your money where to go (like you might already want to tell me where to go). You have to control where your money is spent and this happens through a budget, and not one of those “I’ll do it in my head” budgets.

The key is to keep it simple and not try to have a 100 line item budget, that’s doomed to fail. Take your biggest categories of spending that can fluctuate (clothes, groceries, going out to eat, etc) and create a goal for the amount you want to spend each month. Use your previous month totals from step 2 as a guide to set your total monthly amounts. Here are some sweet examples of budgets:

If you’re really serious about doing this, here’s a pro tip: cash budget, baby. This is the most effective way to stick to your spending plan because there’s nothing that makes your spending more real than pulling out a $100 bill every time you got to Wal-mart or go out to eat. You’ll experience the psychological impact as you see Benjamin leaving your pocket and paying for Chili’s two for two with too many margaritas, and it will start to change how you spend your money.

Check out the full details here on how to use the cash budget, but we literally went to the bank each month, pulled out $1,200 in cash, stuffed four envelopes, and then spent from them. If you weren’t watching your spending closely before, I can almost guarantee by doing this, you’ll quickly find an extra 20% of your dollars back in your wallet. These were our envelopes:

  1. Entertainment ($400)
  2. Food ($600)
  3. Clothes ($100)
  4. Lucy/pet spending ($100)

As you can see, it doesn’t include all of our expenses because some are too convenient (who wants to pay for gas with cash) and others aren’t as easy to constrain (utilities). This was also a few years old and our numbers have changed since then… based on our latest monthly spending report while traveling, we’re over $800/month for food.

4.  Monitor plan and adjust as necessary

Now that you’ve created your spending plan, you need to track against it as the month goes on. As I mentioned in step #3, you may be surprised about how much you are spending on certain areas, so see what happens now that you’re tracking it. Feel free to move your numbers up or down in certain areas as the months progress. Use the same tracking methods mentioned in step 2.

Now, for one of the most important parts… don’t give up! If you do, you’ll be in the same position that you were in before. Use the knowledge you have gained from analyzing your spending and spending plan and keep the momentum going. This needs to be a change in the way you live, not a temporary diet in your spending.

5.  Save some money

At this point, you should have a good idea of where your money is going and how much you have to save. You’ll inevitably have some crazy thing happen right as you start making progress, so you’ll want to quickly build up an emergency fund so you don’t have to use your credit cards. Let’s see… some of my fun ones over the years have included a towed car, minor wreck, sick dog, ruptured achillles tendon and lots of fun house repairs.

Let’s start with two main savings tips:

A.  Create an emergency fund

The minimum amount you need to save is $1,000 to cover unexpected expense like the ones I mentioned above. If you already have this money in savings or you’ve now saved it, it’s time to move on to the big savings fund. You need to build up your emergency fund to 3-6 months of expenses so you can cover major issues like the loss of a job or a major injury. You should keep this money in liquid assets like savings accounts where you can quickly access the money. Now that you know your complete budget from step three, you should know the amount you need to save.

There are two main obstacles for most people on this step. The first, is you’d rather pay off debt. I agree that’s important, so you can always do both simultaneously, but I’d try for at least three months of spending saved before you go full on debt. The other obstacle is for nerds like me who’d rather invest it. This money is your security blanket or your “tell your boss off” fund. Keep it in a place where a major market correction won’t hurt it…. because your boss could become unbearable at any minute!

B.  Pay yourself first

Another important part of building your savings is to pay yourself first. It’s tempting to “save what you have at the end of the month”, but more times than not, you’ll find not a lot of money at the end of the month. If instead, you put money into savings before the month starts, you’ll be amazed at how you get by without it.

Setup an automatic withdrawal through your bank and time it so it happens a few days after you get your paycheck. Just like you’re hopefully doing with your retirement accounts, the money will get pulled before you even had your spendy little Donald Trump hands on it.

6.  Attack your debt

Debt is one of our biggest obstacles to freedom, and there’s a lot of people who profit off of you being in debt. It’s time to cut that, time to kill all of your debt so you’re working for you and not for GM auto financing. I hate debt – especially short term debt. The only debt I plan to ever have in my life is a mortgage debt, but I’d like to even get that knocked out soon. My distaste for debt came from back when graduated college and within a year of working, I was already $50k in debt and had a stupid car loan** which I’ve since vowed to never have again.

Now that you’ve followed the previous five steps, you know where your money is going, how much you have to spend, you’ve saved up some emergency funds and now it’s time to kill the debt.

There are many plans that give you the steps to pay off your debts but my favorite is Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover, and it’s the plan I used to pay off my debt. He has a method called the “debt snowball” where you list all of your debts from smallest to largest on a piece of paper. You can even right this on a poster board you attach to your refrigerator so you know every day what you’re fighting.

Start with the smallest debt on the top of the list and pay only your minimums on the rest of the of the debts. Attack that smallest debt with the rest of your money until it’s paid off. Mark it off the list and do a happy dance. Now, it’s time to attack debt number two – this time using the extra money you were paying off the first debt with — thus, creating the snowball! This really does work and there’s a lot of psychological benefits for doing it this way versus going after the highest interest accounts first. Check out this great template from Kyle to track your debt snowball.

This is how you start to take control of your life, so you can call the shots. You need to have complete control of your money, and you need to be on the same page with your spouse if you’re married. If both of you aren’t bought in on this plan, there’s a high likelihood that it won’t work.

Next, we’ll talk about working smart to maximize your income and also get into investing. If you’ve made it this far, you must be serious about taking control of your money! Seriously, I think I was going for a record long post!!

 

*Incidentally, I had that problem on Bourbon street once and only realized the next few days how much I spent as the credit card charges kept coming

**One of my controversial and popular posts is the 20% rule for buying a car, if you have about three days, you should read through the comments as they’re quite entertaining.