On September 4th, 2010, I packed up three boxes of stuff and left my apartment in Charleston, South Carolina, to hit the road full-time. The three boxes ended up in a friend’s basement in New Hampshire, and I went on to travel to almost 20 countries in the Caribbean, Europe, and Central America, including Scotland, Switzerland, the BVIs, Grenada, and Curacao. In the first six weeks of 2011, I spent time in Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and Panama.
Whenever I tell people this, I immediately see one of three thought bubbles immediately form over their heads:
1) She married into money.
2) She scored a killer book deal.
3) She has a healthy trust fund that wasn’t decimated in the recession….must be nice.
The truth is actually none of these. I live on about one-third of the money that I needed to support myself when I was living in one place.
It’s pretty simple. First: I have no overhead. No rent, no utilities, no car payment.
Second, I don’t travel to the glossy-brochure vacation destinations where little effort is needed to drop several hundred dollars a day. Disclaimer: as a freelance writer who occasionally travels on a tourist board’s dime, when I’m on my own, I only visit places where I can live quite comfortably on a fraction of what’s necessary for even a bare-bones existence in the States. I couchsurf, stay with friends (and friends of friends), and occasionally spring for an inexpensive guesthouse or cheap hotel.
Naturally, my relationship with money has undergone a radical shift in the seven-months-and-counting that I’ve been homeless by choice. For one, since I don’t have to make as much money in order to live, I can work less and take on assignments that pay less – which in this economy, is pretty much a given – but that I enjoy doing.
Second, I don’t freak out about money the way I did when I had to rely on other people paying me so I could in turn pay for the roof over my head. In the past, if a check was late, I’d lay awake nights cursing the fools in accounts payable who I imagined got some perverse pleasure out of making lowly freelancers sweat. Now that I live on a lot less, the issue of money has been taken off the front burner, which frees up time and energy for other pursuits – like sitting down with friends old and new and having the time for more than a superficial conversation, exploring a new-to-me city, or just spending the afternoon in a park while alternately reading a book and people-watching.
I do have expenses, of course. Previously, the biggest chunk of my monthly income went to the landlord. Now it goes towards getting myself from one point to another, whether by train, plane, or bus. The second biggest? Food and wine, both in restaurants and markets – mostly as a thank-you to my hosts for putting me up – and the occasional cheap hotel room. I don’t buy souvenirs because then I would have to carry them with me, and I travel VERY lightly; only a small backpack and a gym bag. I also learned very early on that it’s possible to buy anything you need on the road. At the same time, however, the If we don’t have it, you don’t need it sign jokingly hung on the wall in many U.S. shops takes on an entirely new meaning in a country like Guatemala or Panama, where the typical food market maybe measures 200 square feet.
There is a downside, of course, and it involves the culture shock whenever I touch down back in the States. The first American supermarket I visited after my recent Central America jaunt not only put me into a fog within steps of setting foot in the produce section, but also served as a disturbing form of amusement when I counted no fewer than 20 varieties of croutons available for sale.
Not everyone is cut out for this particular brand of travel – or homelessness – of course. For me, however, there were several early clues strewn along my path. During the 30 years that I did have a permanent address, I never decorated or hung anything on the walls. My rooms were largely furnished from thrift shops and flea markets, because even then I preferred to spend my money on experiences rather than stuff. In any case, as long as I’ve been traveling, I’ve come to realize that the more money you spend while you’re traveling, the more you insulate yourself from experiencing the true essence of a place, not to mention that it puts a damper on your ability to mix with the locals. After all, when you can spend on one drink what your housekeeper or waiter makes in a week, it’s hard for them to view the commonality between you.
The nice thing about traveling off-the-grid is that most of the people I meet who are doing the same thing are also doing it on a shoestring. The crazy thing is that that we don’t really talk about it. Instead, we compare notes on where to go, what to do when we get there, and sometimes we even get invited to tag along.
My relaxed attitude towards money has naturally extended towards my travel schedule. Often, I don’t know where I’m headed next; it usually depends on a variety of factors. Friends have learned to expect last-minute emails or calls, and are accustomed to me just showing up on their doorsteps. Or else I’ll pick a place I haven’t yet visited, and then figure out how to get myself there.
The question that people ask most is how long I plan to continue living a vagabond lifestyle. I honestly don’t know. The world is big, and there are still lots of places to visit. And I’m perfectly comfortable not having a place to call my own. But more importantly, at this stage, the idea of having to step back onto that gerbil wheel of spending way too much time just to pay the bills holds little appeal.
OOTS on Wealth is a series on what it means – and how much money it takes – to feel and be wealthy in America. Read previous pieces from the series here.