How to Plan and Maintain a Budget for Open Ended Travel

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Traveling without an end date gives you the freedom to move slowly, make spontaneous choices, and change plans freely. Open ended travel also presents some unique challenges, like creating a budget for your trip, and managing that money while traveling.  Here we present a step by step guide on how to plan and maintain a budget for open ended travel.

Figure out your monthly trip cost

Once you’ve decided where you want to go and how you want to get there you will need to estimate your monthly travel cost. Do some research as to the day to day costs you will incur so you can budget your trip. It’s best to create an estimated trip budget per month of travel. Aside from the obvious costs such as lodging and food, make sure you include monthly costs like travel insurance, cell phone/internet service, and an emergency fund for unpredictable additional expenses. (Click here to read about our costs traveling through Mexico!)

Try to find travel blogs detailing the area you plan to travel to. Many travel bloggers break down their vacation budget, and travel blogs are an incredibly useful tool in figuring out the cost of living in foreign destinations. 

Be realistic about the comforts you need, and the things you can do without on the road. For example, from the comfort of your living room the thought of wild camping for free 5 nights per week may sound like a great way to save money, but are you prepared to travel until nightfall, and get up and break camp before sunrise every day? Alternatively, do you really need a mocha every morning, or are you willing to make your own coffee in your hostel/on a camp stove/etc.? The answers to these questions are very personal, so try to be honest with yourself during the planning stage so that you make a realistic travel plan.

Now take a basic guess at how long you would like to travel for: 6 months? 1 year? Indefinitely? This will help you to calculate your initial trip cost . If you plan on making money on the road, and won’t be starting out with some sort of income stream, I would plan to have at least 6 months worth of expenses saved so you have plenty of time to make more cash as you go.

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Where will the money come from?

So you have a budget of monthly expenses planned out for your travel. Good work! Now, the big question... where will the money come from?

There are as many ways to finance your open ended travel as there are destinations to visit. Some people own a home and rent it out to finance their travel, others save up for a year and hit the road with a lump sum in the bank, others work online while on the road to fund their trip. Figure out what you own that you could liquidate, what skills you have that you could monetize, and how you can save money while you plan your trip. 

We took a dual approach to funding our travels. First, we sold most of our possessions, including my car, so that we would have a cushion of savings in the bank for emergencies. This liquidation also funded our initial investment in gear (and eventually the purchase of our camper, which you can read about here) . We are lucky enough to have a small passive monthly income that will cover basic expenses, though we have to watch our budget very closely if we want to avoid dipping into our savings. Eventually we would like to create a location independent income that will fund our travels, but that takes time so if that is part of your plan, do not rely on that for at least the first 6 months. 

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Sticking to your travel budget on the road

You’ve created a budget for travel, you’ve saved up some money (or figured out how to fund your travels as you go), and it's time to hit the road! Now you have to learn to maintain that budget you spent so much time on. Sounds easy, right? You may be surprised by all the money pits you can run into while traveling. Here's an excellent article on how to save money while you travel!

After a long day of travel it’s much easier to order a meal at a restaurant than it is to make yourself something, and on a rainy day a motel may be a lot more appealing than a tent (or a camper). It’s okay to splurge sometimes, but if you aren’t paying close attention to your budget it will be easy to spend beyond your means.

Long before we left on our travels I learned a system of budgeting that works very well for me, and for lots of other people as well, it’s called You Need a Budget (YNAB for short). While many budgeting systems are based on the amount of money you expect to have next month, this budgeting system requires you to work with the money you actually have at the beginning of the month, and it also allows you to categorize exactly where you want that money to go. YNAB offers a 34 day free trial through their website, and I highly recommend giving it a try at least one month before you leave for your trip.

When you know at any given moment exactly how many dollars you have to spend on lodging, food, excursions, etc it helps you make a good decision when faced with a splurgy purchase like a $15 restaurant meal versus a $5 meal you’ve cooked.

I won’t lie, after the one month free trial I did not pay for the YNAB program, simply because I was able to implement the concepts of the budgeting system without the software. However, this is a lot more work on my end, because I have to manually keep track of every single transaction I make on a monthly expense sheet. If you pay for the YNAB app/program it can be linked to your accounts, and everything is quite a bit easier/automatic.

YNAB is also an awesome tool to help you save more for your travels before you leave! It was a game changer for me, and I highly recommend it to anyone who finds budgeting to be a pain in the ass (that’s most of us right?!).

What are your tips for travel budgeting? Share them with us in the comments!