Is It Even Possible to Travel Frugally?

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October 8, 2010 by Leah

I suck at being frugal.  Since I started this blog, I haven’t made a budget, I’ve just been doing some after-the-fact analysis.  The idea of budgeting fills me with dread because I have no idea how to enforce a budget.  August spending appeared to be better than July, but I haven’t analyzed September because I know what I’ll discover, and it will be horrifying.  I’m sick of thinking about money and I don’t want to do it anymore.

September was awful firstly because we haven’t paid rent on our house yet and the situation is getting dire.  (It wasn’t dire in July.)  This is one of those weird things – the rent is supposed to be deducted from Aaron’s salary and it hasn’t been.  I don’t see Aaron’s pay stubs, so it’s been “out of sight, out of mind.”  You’d think the government would be interested in getting its money, but apparently it isn’t.  We now owe over $5000 in back rent and I’ve been completely ignoring the fact.  It means we’ve been spending proportionally much more of our income than we should be (although I’m including hefty loan payments in the “expenditures” figures, so that, at least, is something).

Secondly, and worse, because these were controllable expenditures, we bought four more plane tickets. Travel is an expensive habit, both monetarily and environmentally.  Aaron is lucky – his entire extended family is within driving distance of one another in Oregon and Washington.  Mine is spread from California to Alaska to Minnesota/North Dakota to New England to South Carolina to the Czech Republic.  We are heading to Boston tomorrow and driving through New Hampshire and up to Maine over the next couple of days.

The primary reason for the trip is so Aaron can meet my grandma, her husband, and my aunt Becky, all of whom are wonderful and none of whom were able to fly to Alaska on a month’s notice for our wedding.  (Go figure.)

The secondary reason is for Aaron to experience an area that is dear to me and new to him.  We’re doing it as frugally as possible – the one night we have to spend in a hotel, we sacrificed comfort for location so we would actually be near the Freedom Trail upon awakening.  Our room will have two single beds and a shared bath down the hall.  Still, that’s $99.  We also discovered that waiting until the last minute isn’t the best way to get the best rate on a rental car.  That said, Enterprise always has the best rates, comparatively, and we’re getting the smallest car (which should also help with gas mileage and expenditures).  For the rest of the time, we will be enjoying the hospitality of my lovely relatives, treating them to dinners out, and viewing leaves and lighthouses.  (Oh, and we are also going to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra play Mahler.  This will be a real treat both musically and monetarily – the tickets were gifted to us by some friends who had purchased them and then weren’t able to use them, which is sad for them but great for us.)

Our next trip will be to Minnesota for Thanksgiving.  Once we’ve been there, Aaron will have met ALMOST all of my relatives and family friends (I’ve been to Oregon four times this year in order to accomplish the same feat regarding his relatives and family friends).  I am really hoping to get us to Prague next spring (Aaron has always wanted to go, I would love to spend more than two days there, and my cousin and her husband live there), and I miss Alaska like crazy, but something may have to give here.  Once I get a job, we’ll have more money but less available vacation, and a harder time coordinating our vacation time.  Additionally, all this flying makes for a ridiculously big carbon footprint.

Growing up in the upper middle class in Alaska, I viewed it as my god-given right to escape from the Last Frontier on a regular basis (of course, I also flew back and forth between my parents, one in Alaska and one in Minnesota, on a regular basis).  Now I’m not so sure.  A more sustainable and frugal lifestyle might mean cutting the travel.  And yet, travel is so good for us in so many ways, particularly in allowing us to see the world from perspectives not our own.  I’m not sure how to reconcile the airplane habit with my stated goals of saving money and cutting down on our environmental impact.  I’m also very tempted to just give up on the whole “managing our money” thing because it’s just too damn hard to pull together all the information.  We’ll see how I feel when I get back next Saturday – maybe I’ll be refreshed enough to make a budget and step up the job search.

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7 thoughts on “Is It Even Possible to Travel Frugally?

  1. Juskimo says:

    I don’t think that what we think of as travel, i.e. the right to take 3-6 trips to see family, friends, and to “get away” every year, is consistent with a frugal lifestyle.

    However, I am beginning to think that frugal is a misnomer for what you (and what I hope to be organized enough to do someday soon) are trying to accomplish. I equate frugal with trying to live on as small a budget as possible, with the total expenditures getting viewed through the prism of necessary. I highly doubt that anyone who was truly trying to live frugally would do something as relatively wasteful as visit the same region 4 separate times in one year.

    With that having been said, I think that what you are really trying to accomplish is more about living within a budget and balancing “want/need” and “fits within my budget.” If you were trying to live as frugally as possible, you would be spending $2 a day on Kraft Mac and Cheese and generic beans’n’weenies, regardless of any health concerns. The decision to do something like eat locally and organically is a compromise between what fits into the budget and non-budgetary concerns, like carbon footprint and health.

  2. leahkathlyn says:

    I kind of had this discussion with Kymberly earlier, which makes me think the whole blog thing may be getting annoying and sanctimonious and I should just quit. I like the definitions of “frugal” that talk about “practicing economy” and “avoiding waste” better than I like those that involve “costing little,” but as in so many things, we each have our own definitions and that colors our perceptions. K. thinks my implication that I would like to live frugally while having so much, loans or not, may be insulting to those who have to live on very little. It’s something to think about.

  3. Maria Benner says:

    My secret to hoarding money is “paying myself first.” I’m sure you’ve heard about this tactic, but few people actually use it. In order to use it, you need a budget to give you an idea of how much you need to leave in your checking account for spending. The rest goes into savings immediately after the direct deposit goes through. I shovel money into savings every pay day. If you wait until the end of the month to put whatever you didn’t spend into savings, you’ll be left with less. Trust me, this works. As far as building your budget, just put together a list of your bills/expenses, and allot x amount for misc. (including travel). That should only take you 20 min. to accomplish.

  4. gia says:

    I think I agree with Maria. I actually don’t know how to have a budget unless I am caught up. Once I’m at a $0 balance, then I can budget what I can spend on each thing for the next month (whether rent, payment on student loans or travel, clothes, etc.) If I’m in the negative zone though, it may be time to lock up the credit card and get a ton of books from the library, haha. It feels great to know when I go to Boston on Tues (we are just missing eachother) that I have a $300 budget for dinners, museums, and trying to spoil my best friend who lives there. Anything beyond that, I will try to minimize, and know it’s coming from the next paycheck. xo

  5. leahkathlyn says:

    You two are awesome. Aaron and I have agreed to sit down, together, when we get back to at least make sure I have access to all our financial information, which we still haven’t gotten around to doing. And then I will have the tools with which to make a budget. I think I’m feeling adrift and unsupported because we’re still figuring out how to live as a couple rather than as two single people. @Gia, too bad we’re not going to overlap in Boston!

  6. Josh says:

    You’ve got the analysis, time for accurate forecasting.

    1) Get a checking/savings account combination that is good about overdrafting and withdrawal from savings. AlaskaUSA used to be good about this.
    2) Like Maria says, put all income into a savings account. It’s good for segmenting funds you have vs. those that are “already spent,” but it’s also good to accrue interest (however small) on the money for as long as possible. Banks calculate interest is calculated per-day, not per month.
    3) Calculate all known, static monthly expenses (utilities, loan payments, mortgage, rent). Account for 5% error.
    4) Estimate known dynamic monthly costs (things that are required, but vary from month to month on cost: food, wine, food). Account for 10% error.
    5) Add 3 and 4 together (accounting for error of 5% and 10% ). If the things you’re planning for in 3 and 4 exceed 65% of your monthly income, reevaluate heavily. Mortgage brokers recommend no more than 50% of your monthly income dedicated to a mortgage payment. The rule, I imagine, applies as well to renting, for the reason that the size of the mortgage payment / monthly rent scales with the size of the incidentals that come with living (furniture, repairs, utilities, food, etc.).

    It’s obvious to just say “find your expenses, add them together.” However, based on your high variability from month to month, I would guess that your idea of how much money you can spend on things outside of the basics is less than concrete. This is why I recommend finding your 40% of monthly income figure that isn’t dedicated towards something. It’s a number to keep in mind when thinking “how many months do I have to wait before I can spend $X?” It’s a difficult and punishing way of thinking, as it precludes any instant gratification in a purchase. However, it makes you reevaluate what is wanted and needed, and fits it appropriately into a time frame.

    Also, given the savings / checking buffer system, you can easily see that what is in your checking account are funds that are already spent, and cannot be spent on something else. Your “outbound.” Your savings account is your “inbound,” and the difference between the two gives you an idea of a) the magnitude of your monthly expenses versus how much you can save and b) how long you could survive on your current savings. Also, if savings is ever less than checking, and, say, the month is about to turn, you know there’s going to be trouble.

    Of course, take this with a grain of salt. I’m a single guy who shops almost exclusively at Costco, has cheap hobbies, and pays cash for everything. My clothes are falling apart, my house only recently started looking like a home, and everyone makes fun of me when I get bring home three boxes of yogurt for the month, but I make it a point to organize my bank accounts as described above, and never exceed 40% of my income in purchases, necessary or frivolous.

    Great read, keep writing.

  7. Marla says:

    first let me say that i don’t believe you suck at anything Leah.
    that said, the responses here are wonderful and i would not have been able to express them nearly as well. your life has changed dramatically in the last year, this too will come with time and determination. xoxo

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