'Travel slowly' and more savings tips from a couple who lived abroad for a year on $33,000

Ait-Ben-Haddou, Ouarzazate, Morocco.
Courtesy Kate Nelson

Sam and Kate Nelson each used to clock 60 hours of work a week. Kate, 31, was a dining room manager and Sam, 34, worked as a restaurant general manager in another venue. In September 2018, they quit to travel full time for a year and live on the $50,000 they'd saved.

Now, over a year later, thanks to savvy planning, smart choices, and some good fortune, they've only spent $33,000, meaning they have $17,000 left. And they have no intention of coming home anytime soon.

Hitting "pause" on their careers to travel full time in their early 30s hasn't been without bumps in the road — quite literally, in some cases: Kate had a motorbike accident that sent her to a hospital in Vietnam. But their year abroad has also been a transformative experience, and the Nelsons have no regrets about using their savings for it.

Here's what Kate says about the couple's choice to invest in seeing the world and what she and Sam have learned along the way.

Was there a particular experience that inspired you?

I hit my breaking point right after a vacation. Getting time off was difficult because it meant that our restaurants would have to function without those 60 hours of work that we normally put in. I was overwhelmed by a backlog of work that hadn't been done and it made me feel like I could never go on vacation.

In my frustration I said to Sam, "Let's just quit and leave. I can't do this anymore!" He was trying to calm me down and said, "OK, we can talk about this in the morning, but right now you're upset." When we woke up, I said, "You're right, I was upset. But I still like the idea." Six months later we were on a one-way flight.

Khao Sok National Park, Thailand.
Courtesy Kate Nelson

How did you prepare your finances for long-term travel?

Right after college, I read a few books about investing, which made me make smart financial decisions from a young age — thanks, Suze Orman!

For my 22nd birthday present to myself, I invested all of my savings into mutual funds and set up automatic investments that just left my bank account. When I met Sam, I taught him to do the same and he agreed immediately.

Every time we got a raise, we would live off the same amount of money we'd always been comfortable with and we'd add the extra money into our investments.

Every time we got a raise, we would live off the same amount of money we'd always been comfortable with and we'd add the extra money into our investments.
Kate Nelson
full-time traveler

We estimated traveling for one year would cost $50,000 total to cover us both. At the one-year mark, we are way under budget and could easily survive an extra six months now that we're moving at a slower pace and in Southeast Asia, which is cheaper than where we began in Europe.

Here in Southeast Asia, most people on a two-week vacation would probably spend $60-$100 per night on a very nice hotel, but we choose the rustic $9 per night homestay option. We also aren't afraid of street food, so we can eat a tasty meal for $3 total versus $10 in sit-down restaurants. That's not a huge differential, but it adds up when you multiply by a year.

Sahara Desert, Morocco.
Courtesy Kate Nelson

Why did you decide to use your savings to travel?

I think that this life-changing trip is worth more to me than the theoretical number we could now have in a bank account. Could we wait until retirement and have a way larger number? Yes, but we wouldn't be able to scuba dive, trek, adventure, and generally exist the way we are able to while we're still young.

What is the best money-saving tip you've found along the way?

Travel slowly. Every time you move, you spend money. Sam and I can easily get by on $30/day for the two of us in Vietnam. It's a little more if we take a tour or have a night out drinking, but not much more.

You don't need to be a millionaire to travel — it's the style of travel and how good you are at budgeting and deciding what's not important.

This life-changing trip is worth more to me than the theoretical number we could now have in a bank account.
Kate Nelson
full-time traveler

What comes next?

We're still having so much fun and there are so many places we still want to see, but full-time travel isn't always easy and we had to give up a lot of things, which I am really starting to miss, so I don't see this lasting forever. But making the decision to go home seems so final!

I really wish my background was in something more remote-friendly. We've talked about teaching English, which requires getting certifications, but that seems like a good investment so we could continue to travel without draining our savings.

No matter where we end up, we will be able to use what we've learned to shape our lives into what we want them to be. Maybe when we get back we'll totally reinvent ourselves. If we didn't have this experience, we wouldn't have this perspective.

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