If you’re like I used to be, you probably read articles in travel and lifestyle blogs and roll your eyes.
The top international destinations to visit this year. Eye roll.
The four new credit cards you must apply for right now. Eye roll.
I mean, who can afford that? Who has that much time off? Isn’t anyone else in this great big world saddled with loan debt?!
Truthfully, I figured anyone living these high-flying fashion-forward always-active lifestyles had some kind of a trust fund they were drawing from. That is, until I got smart about saving, prioritized my interests and passions outside of work, and discovered that this kind of lifestyle was achievable on a working girl’s salary.
Now, I have to be transparent here: I am a single girl without debt or dependents, no pets, no mortgage – nothing that sucks my paychecks dry each month except for my stupidly high Washington, D.C. rent and related billz billz billz. This article is written firmly from that perspective, because I don’t know any other.
If you have a family, a big mortgage payment, or are buried in student loans, you have legitimate barriers to the kind of freewheeling lifestyle I currently live. By the way, I have mad respect for that. But if you find yourself in that category, you may have to work harder or longer to make that travel or other dream come true. I’m confident that there are still some nuggets of this advice in this article that you will find applicable.
For those who are wondering how to achieve a travel- and activity-focused lifestyle while still holding down the average nine-to-five, here are some practical tips from my own experience that enabled me to be more flexible and opportunistic in my life. I believe they can help you, too!
GET YOUR FINANCIAL HOUSE IN ORDER.
This is the first and most important piece of the puzzle, and there are many parts to it. Here are some key areas that I focused on to reach my goal of traveling more.
Set enough money to the side so you’re not totally abandoning your future for what you want to do today.
This might be the most critical piece of advice in this post. No matter your income level, you need to set aside money from each paycheck in a savings or investment account that you won’t touch.As a rule, I save between 15-20% of my salary each year (but I’d be lying if I claimed that I was saving that much five years ago when I was broke and paying high DC rent – so be true to your living circumstances). None of that money hits any bank accounts that I have eyeballs on, and instead goes directly into savings accounts and retirement investments. DO THIS and your future self will thank you. It will also mean that you can spend the rest of your income after rent and bills guilt-free.
Minimize or eliminate any debt to improve your credit score.
I can’t stress enough how important good credit is, both now and for your future. It is essential in the United States to make just about any large purchase that requires monthly installments to pay off (car, house, etc.).The first and best way to improve your credit score is to pay your bills each month on time. Relatedly, always pay your credit card balances in full each month. This will significantly improve your credit utilization ratio which will have a positive effect on your credit score.
If your credit score is less than stellar (below 700), you probably need to focus on cleaning that up first before you attempt to balance a lot of spending priorities and credit cards and travel costs. Here are some tips for improving your credit score, courtesy of FICO.
Get a top travel credit card.
Credit is tricky and can be dangerous. It takes someone who is skilled at managing their money to be able to effectively leverage credit cards for points. Admittedly, I am not always the most successful at that, but I always pay off my balances in full each month (critical for maintaining good credit and not getting bogged down with debt).
If you are just getting started with credit cards, start small with one credit card and only a few charges each month. Track your spending closely because it is much more difficult to manage when your line of credit exceeds your monthly income. With that said, when used strategically, credit cards can be an effective way to manage money, build credit, and earn rewards. A good travel credit card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Sapphire Reserve can earn you rewards quickly and provide protections when you travel. I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred two years ago and, thanks in part to a 40,000-point bonus and 20% discount on flights booked with points through Chase’s website, I was able to snag a $961 flight to Argentina last year for 76,922 points – equivalent to $769.
I recently got the Chase Sapphire Reserve card which boasts one of the most impressive rewards for travelers of any credit card. A few of the many benefits include:
- 100,000-point bonus after spending $4,000 in the first three months (I ask family and friends if I can make big purchases for them to meet these spending amounts without digging myself into a financial hole). **IMPORTANT NOTE: This bonus has been discontinued, though the card still offers a 50,000-point bonus which is still quite valuable.**
- $300 annual travel credit to offset the $450 annual fee. You’re essentially paying $150/year for the card, but the rest of the perks more than make up for it
- 3x points on worldwide travel, dining, and transportation. 1x points on all other purchases.
- 50% additional value on travel redemption through Ultimate Rewards website with no blackout dates. What that means is 100 points, usually worth $1, have a 150-point value (or $1.50) when redeemed for travel. For example, a $750 flight would use 5,000 points instead of the standard 7,500. If redeemed for cash, those 5,000 points are worth $500 – so you get additional value from redeeming the points for travel versus cash.
Sick, right? Those benefits give me protections and straight-up cash in my pocket just for making purchases that I would have made anyway.
I try not to have too many credit cards, but I do also have the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select card since I pretty much exclusively fly American (it has the most flight choices out of DCA). I use that only for American Airlines purchases so I can get a small miles boost each year.
Again, credit cards are not for everyone, but when used smartly, they can be an effective money management tool and provide benefits that are as good as cash for purchases you would already be making.
If you’re interested in learning more about credit card strategies, The Points Guy is one of the leading credit card resources out there.
Disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor. Seek professional advice if you are looking for financial management strategies that are tailored to your unique situation. Also, I am not being paid to endorse these credit cards, as much as I wish I were. Hey, Chase, can you show a girl some love?
BE DELIBERATE ABOUT YOUR CHOICES FOR YOUR CAREER, VACATION AND PERSONAL TIME.
It all comes down to prioritizing what you want.
If possible, find a job that includes some travel.
This was a dream of mine from the time I graduated college. It took me three jobs and two cities, but I finally landed a job that I legitimately enjoy which enables me to travel frequently — meaning it’s not on my dime, and the travel which I naturally love counts as being on the clock.I know this particular piece of advice is easier said than done, and can take years to achieve. But if this is something you desire, start seeking it now so your payoff can come quicker.
Use all of your vacation, rolling over one week MAX from year to year (if your employer allows it).
I don’t have to go over all the benefits of taking vacation here. It’s good for your health, it helps the economy, it will reduce your stress level, it increases productivity, and even if you do nothing but sit on the couch, it is important to step outside of your work zone for days at a time to reset.I often hear people in stressful job situations claim that they can’t take vacation because too many people are dependent on them, they never have a break between important projects, or too much work stacks up while they’re out. I don’t discount that. But in my opinion, you have to demand control of your time off, otherwise you will burn out. And that’s not good for anyone.
One strategy I use is to plan my vacations well ahead of time – often 6 months or more in advance. That enables me to get the days approved and have travel booked well before projects come in that could be used as an excuse not to go. Also, it gives my employer a solid heads-up on when I’ll be out, and we can manage project schedules and resources accordingly. It works out for everyone that way, but more than anything, it ensures that I am able to use my hard-earned vacation days.
Be disciplined about how your spend your time away from the office.
This will enable you to be more assertive about when you begin and end work. For instance, if you begin an evening workout routine, you may not be able to work past 5:30 or 6:00 because you have to make it to your class on time.
Once I structured my time immediately before and after work – blogging in the mornings, exercising straight after work in the evenings – I stopped letting my job bleed into my free time. As an added bonus, and out of necessity, I’ve actually became more productive during the eight to nine hours I spend in the office each day!
Another strategy I use is to put everything I’m doing into my calendar. If it looks like another meeting, chances are you’ll treat it like one!
GET SMART ABOUT HOW YOU TRAVEL.
A whole new world opened up for me when I began seeking out ways to travel smarter and more frequently. Let’s all take a moment to give thanks to the glorious Internet, where there are loads of resources available help you with everything from finding cheap flights to learning about new places to visit to discovering what may be in your own backyard.Here are a few strategies I’ve used to become a smarter traveler.
Sign up for ALL THE REWARDS PROGRAMS.
Rewards programs are basically a form of currency. You pay for flights, hotel rooms, and car rentals no matter what, but if you’re a member of those brands’ rewards programs, you get additional points or miles that you can use to get free stuff. If you fly or stay at a hotel even once a year, it’s worth it to become a member. Just be mindful of when points expire.I play the long game with my rewards, meaning I’m working to bank up as many miles/points as I can before cashing them in (again, as long as they’re not at risk to expire). I’m hopeful that my future self will thank me when I’m able to take my children on a vacation that doesn’t completely break the bank. And if the points do end up expiring sooner from lack of loyalty to a particular brand? Hello to lots of free travel for moi!
Points can also enable you to be flexible with last-minute travel arrangements. For instance, back in 2013, a close friend’s father unexpectedly passed away. The funeral was going to take place just a few days later, meaning flight prices would be through the roof. I was able to use my Delta SkyMiles – which I had been banking since I was 11 before Delta acquired Northwest – to fly me to Minnesota from Washington, D.C. It meant the world to me to be able to support my friend during the most difficult days of her life, and I was thankful not to have been in the position of having to decide whether or not to go because flights were so expensive.
Travel during off-peak times.
For anyone like me who works a full-time job and is on a strict budget, you’re probably looking for opportunities to do things at a discount. Shoulder seasons (spring and fall) are a great time to travel to many popular destinations – especially beach and mountain towns – because tourism has very distinct peaks in summer and winter.
Truthfully, I don’t understand why more people don’t travel during shoulder seasons if they can swing it with their jobs. It basically means that you’re in a place when the weather is milder, crowds are thinner, and prices are lower (my recent visit to Martha’s Vineyard is proof of that). Who wouldn’t want that?
Prioritize visiting friends and family who can host you and give you an insider’s tour of where they live.
Another great tip for those on a budget: Leverage the people you know! I am always happy to host friends and family when they visit Washington, D.C., and I tend to prioritize my travels around the places I can go where I know people. For instance, on my aforementioned Argentina trip last year, I was able to stay with a good friend and not pay a dime for lodging the entire time I was in Mendoza. That saved me a boatload of money. It’s a great way to make expensive destinations affordable.
Don’t know people in the city you’re visiting? Try Couchsurfing if you’re on a strict budget. You can literally sleep on someone’s couch for free at your destination.
Maximize your time at home: Join a local club that exposes you to events and activities in your area that you wouldn’t normally know about.
Can’t get away? There’s nothing stopping you from trying out new things at a local level! I joined a membership organization called Ivy which exposes me to events and activities in D.C. that I never would have known about otherwise. It’s been a great way to meet people and see the city in a new light. Ivy is in a number of U.S. cities, and other organizations such as Meetup offer numerous activities that will help you unleash your inner “local tourist.”
So there you have it: My strategies for saving money, traveling more, and taking back your work-life balance. If you made it this far, you deserve a beer and a pat on the back. Leave a comment to let me know what you thought!