Experiment: Travel More, Save Money

This particular experiment is very dear to my heart as it has become a way of life. For 9 months I have lived in 4 countries, never staying in one for longer than 11 weeks.  I have had the opportunity to do and learn some amazing things by challenging the idea that world travel is prohibitively expensive.  I have adapted my lifestyle to actually save money while traveling abroad.


When I tell people that I have been traveling the world they assume that I must be independently wealthy.  The truth is that I, like many Americans, make an average salary and have debts to pay (such as student loans).  Many people dismiss my story as an outlier at best (or a fabrication at worst) because they have accepted the false notion that only the rich are able travel the world. I’ll show you, through raw data analysis, exactly why that precept is a fallacy.  This is the post (and the philosophy) that makes this blog possible.


When I left the USA back in 2010 I wasn’t entirely convinced that this was going to work.  I thought it was possible to spend less and travel, but I didn’t have any data to support that premise.  What I did know is that many people confuse traveling with a vacation.  A vacation is, by definition, a temporary break from the routine.  Travelers, on the other hand, adapt to the lifestyle of their destination.



Just the Numbers



It is possible to travel and do similar things to what I do on a relatively small budget.  In fact, I’d say I live quite lavishly here in Europe.  France (my current home) is by no means a cheap country to live in (check out this Lonely Planet guide to countries that are still cheap).  If I did not move around as frequently as I do I would be able to rent an apartment for a longer period of time, which means a significantly better rate (check out Vacation Rentals by Owner if you have a small group or family).  Soon I’d like to do an experiment to prove that it is possible to travel on minimum wage, but for now let’s focus on my lifestyle over the last 9 months…

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The bottom line is that my entire life here costs less than it did in Southern California.  Keep in mind these numbers are mere rough averages per month:


Southern California Average Cost in Spain, Morocco and France
Apartment $1,675 $870
Utilities* $175 $0
Food $300 $250
Entertainment $400 $200
Clothes $200 $50
Phone $100 $30
Transportation** $590 $40
TOTAL*** $3,440 $1,440



That’s about $2,100 in savings per month. Even if I stay in a hostel instead of an apartment, the costs don’t go up much (a decent hostel usually costs about $35 / night or $1050 a month).  With all this saved money I am able to pay for language classes (4 hours a day in the classroom) and still be saving money.  When I want to move to a new location the cost of getting to a new city in Europe is rarely more than $100 (from RyanAir, EasyJet or just on a train).


How can I even begin to describe the difference in the quality of food here in France?  A French friend recently told me that she could not find any edible food when she visited the US and I am beginning to see why she felt that way.  There are 2 separate markets with fresh produce on the 2 minute walk to class, yet the prices and quality are like nothing I’ve seen in the states.


It may be tempting to point out that my SoCal apartment was expensive and that it was near the beach.  This is true, but even studio apartments in LA cost well over $1,200 / month.  That said, my quality of living is just as good, if not better, in these European cities.  The Mediterranean has just as nice of weather as Southern California, the beach is always close, and it is actually much easier to find interesting things to do than in the spread out city of Los Angeles.  I am getting a comparable product for significantly cheaper.



* Included in my rent in each case thus far
* The California number includes car loan payments and insurance as well as gas.
*** I have deliberately excluded a few things that are equal in both situations, like health insurance and student loan payments.  I have (thankfully) not had the need to test out the health care here in Europe, I know I am covered by my insurance and I am under the impression that (if anything) it will be cheaper.



What’s the Secret?



There are a lot of things that contribute to how much cheaper my time abroad is.

  • My lifestyle is fundamentally different.  In your own country, especially in big cities, it is easy to get sucked in by all the expensive excursions.  In Los Angeles I might have driven 6 hours with friends up to Mammoth to go skiing for the weekend (paying hundreds of dollars in lift tickets, gas, parking, lodging, etc.)  Here in France my idea of a good weekend is to take a train to a nearby city / landmark with my camera, a book and a packed lunch (about $40 total cost and I’m back to stay in my own room).  When I need something new I just move to the next country.
  • European cities are small and easy to get around.  Most everything I could want to do is in walking distance.  No need for a car loan, gas, insurance, etc.
  • I use resources available to me like Budget Travel, Lonely Planet and — most importantly — friends that I make on the road!
  • The temptations are fewer.  In your home country it is easy to get sucked in by the trends.  My particular vices include new techno-gadgets and clothing.  While on the road there’s no point in buying new gadgets or clothes – all they will do is weigh down my suitcase!
  • My group of friends is different.  In your home country you’re probably surrounded by other professionals who don’t think twice about paying $15+ for a meal or $5 for a drink.  Most other travelers are on a budget, though, and enjoy cheaper activities.
  • I pay much less in taxes while living outside the USA.  I’m going to stay away from providing tax advice for now since I am not qualified to do so, but I can say I paid less in taxes in 2010 than in 2009 even though I earned more money.  My taxes are all done by a certified CPA who specializes in situations like mine, and (to me) the annual filing fee is well worth the peace of mind of knowing everything is done by-the-book.



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What Does This Mean for Me?



You may be thinking that this article doesn’t apply to you. That’s only true if you have no desire to travel the world.  If you do desire it, don’t sell yourself short!  The primary hurdle to traveling the world is making an income independent of your location, and that income doesn’t have to be enormous.  In future articles, I will show you how to transition from working in an office to working from your anywhere you please.  The other hurdle is challenging the status quo.  It’s very easy to become indoctrinated by the rhetoric that you must have a 9-5 job to be financially secure, a mortgage to be successful and a big-screen TV to enjoy life.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=32902887 Georgio Georgiev

    Great one Zane!

  • http://www.facebook.com/validatorian Jon Hughes

    Excellent article :)

  • http://twitter.com/MelissaTanyaR Melissa Tanya

    Love this Zane…really interesting !!!!

  • http://twitter.com/MelissaTanyaR Melissa Tanya

    Love this Zane…really interesting !!!!

  • http://www.whereisdarrennow.com Darren

    I have found this to be very true. I lived in San Diego for 20 years before starting to travel. One month’s rent in San Diego pays for SIX months of rent in Barcelona! Almost everything is cheaper (for example, cell phone plan is $35 now and was $110 in the U.S.). I figured that I could travel for six months with the money I saved…that was 1 1/2 years ago and I’m still going strong.

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Wow, that’s quite the accomplishment! Do you have an end-date in mind, or are you just going to keep going as long as possible? Maybe find a way to earn a few bucks on the road? I hope to do an experiment in nonstandard ways to earn money on the road soon to give people ideas ;)

      • http://www.whereisdarrennow.com Darren

        No end date firmed up yet…still trying to keep it going. I can’t recommend it enough and also can’t emphasize it enough that it’s a lot better AND cheaper than almost anyone thinks it’ll be.

        As for making money, it’s best if you have computer-based job (programmer/other) since getting work visas is usually challenging. There’s always the teaching-English option in lots of places. One last idea that would be a great experiment, if you have the ability…here in Barcelona there are people who play music, and in some cases sing, in the Metro stations and on the Metro trains. People are always giving them something, especially the ones on the Metro trains. I’ve seen it in NYC too and have always wondered how they do financially. If nothing else, it’s a great place to practice without the neighbors complaining!

        Maybe you could set up your computer with some speakers and do electronic music to test it out? Good luck!

        • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

          Funny you should mention that idea, Darren – one experiment I would very much like to do is to be homeless for a week. It may seem a bit much, but I think it would be a wonderful way to gain a greater appreciation for my fellow man and see a part of this world that I have been fortunate enough to be shielded from. I have no intention to take the money of passing strangers, unless directly giving it to actual homeless people.

          Of course, I’d really need to brush up on my guitar skills first if I were to go about it that way.

          Good point about computers being much more practical for making money though. I’ll have to compile a list of the online jobs that do not require a unique skill set (writer, web retailer, etc) and do my research on each of them and try them for a month or so each.

          • Max Hydrogen

            Listen, I can tell you from years of experience; homelessness isn’t what the general public thinks it is. And the younger you are, the better the system is. It’s so good that it actually discourages people from escaping homelessness and poverty. And you certainly won’t have to ask for money on the street; only drug addicts do that. Most homeless people are on welfare and travel within the country.

            Of course I’m talking about the situation where I live, maybe you want to try homelessness in the States; I have no information about that though.

          • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

            Thanks for that perspective, Max.  This is exactly why I want to do the experiment.  Since I have mentioned it I have had a handful of people who have been homeless at some point in their lives contact me, and each seems to have a slightly different perspective.  I feel like no matter how the experiment went, I would be surprised.

          • Max Hydrogen

            Oh definitely surprised; it’s not what we expect, certainly not what we see in the media or the commonly accepted notions of it, again, I can only speak of where I have been.

            You know it’s funny, having been through it (still not completely independent of certain resources) I was talking to a friend about starting a business in “Poverty Tourism” for people who want to experience it ha ha! I’m fascinated with the interested the more well to do have with marginal people…

            But actually, the minimalist lifestyle you lead is quite similar to living on the streets*.

            *Youth/Men’s shelter and such.

          • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

            It is interesting you say that, about the hostels and other minimalist lifestyles.  I have lived in some of the most expensive areas of the USA, and frankly I find my life on the read to be far more luxurious.  I can afford good food became the places are cheaper, and I am time-rich so everything is just plain more relaxing.  Anyway, I have a post lined up for tomorrow about my latest cheap journey where I traveled for a whole weekend on about 1/2 minimum wage :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/intelliot Elliot Lee

    Excellent post.

    I will differ on one thing, though: this idea that “even studio apartments in LA cost well over $1,200 / month”. My studio apartment in LA cost $950 / month. Of course, there’s a wide range in the cost of rent in LA.

    As you stated later in your post, it depends partly on your group of friends. If your friends all pay well over $1,200 / month, you could get the impression that’s just what it costs to rent a place in LA. But it doesn’t have to be that way; there are a lot of poor people in LA, and many of them get by just fine by renting places that are far cheaper than ours were.

    That said; the bigger point is simply that you can travel cheaply by renting apartments in your destination countries. Many people assume that, while traveling, they have to stay in hotels. That does make traveling prohibitively expensive; many people just don’t realize how much better and cheaper it is to rent an apartment and live like the locals.

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      That’s true about cost – though not if you want to live near any real employment opportunities or close to the beach. Most offices are either downtown (near the Staples Center), in Westwood/Hollywood, or in the Redondo Beach area. I have not been successful in finding an apartment under $1,000 within convenient distance of any of these. Even living near USC I would consider working near the Staples Center to be inconvenient due to traffic.

      Yeah, the thing about finding apartments / etc. is they are not advertised to foreigners… which is exactly why they are so much cheaper!

  • Ray

    I just found your site via FluentIn3Months and and am enjoying all the info. What type of lodging do you stay at? And how do you find them?


    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      I usually stay in short-stay apartments when in a country for 1-3 months. For example, right now I am in a studio apartment in France that is especially for students (which is great because I meet lots of people (esp. other language students). I sometimes do language schools (little private schools) for the first few weeks with a language and they almost always have the option to also rent an apartment. After that time my language is good enough that I can book an apartment/etc. myself. You’d also be surprised what you can find just walking around and keeping your eyes open! I know at least 2 other big short term studio apartment complexes here, and plenty of apartments for rent for longer durations. Finally, as I said in the post, VRBO is great if you have a group or need something bigger ;)

  • Neville Williams

    What about work? I love to go to Spain I speak good fluently Spanish
    I just have a GED and what about a partner a girlfriend

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter


      Well, for me, I am a computer programmer so I can work anywhere.  For other people, I would suggest taking a look at what skills you have.  Artists, writers, and a number of other professions can easily make the transition to working from the road – if you have any of these skills you can make the transition.  The trick is just explaining to your clients what is going on and maintaining their trust.

      Other than that, there is also the opportunity to do other jobs like work at a hostel, at a bar, as a language teacher, as a surf instructor, etc.  For basically any skill you may have there are people looking to learn it, even in Spain.

      I hope to do an experiment soon where I will find such a random job to prove that it can be done.  Until then, if you have any success let me know!

  • r d

    Great post! I just got my bachelors in Chemistry/Biology and have been flirting with the idea of travelling a year or two abroad before going to graduate school. I’d love to hear more advice, it’s helpful.

    I have so many questions… how much money would you recommend having before setting sail? Did you go alone, or with a group of friends? How much stuff do you haul around with you? Do you work for a company, or are you a freelance programmer?

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