Last week on Instagram Live I had the chance to talk on Natali Martinez’s Gutsy Travel Talk. We sipped cocktails and chatted about future plans to move to Portugal, and also about childhood travel memories from the past.
I recalled a 1967 family road trip to Montreal for the World Expo. My parents packed the car with jars of Tang powdered orange drink, Sanka instant coffee, Carnation powdered milk, tins of pecan sweet rolls, packages of styrofoam cups and paper napkins, and an old, yellow electric hot pot kettle. A large jar of peanut butter and box of Saltine crackers also made it into the food bag, with plastic utensils and paper plates.
Our family stayed in a motel in Montreal, using our room’s heater to warm the tins of sweet rolls every morning for breakfast, and washing them down with Tang, milk powder mixed with tap water from the bathroom sink, and hot instant coffee for my parents. For lunch we had the peanut butter and crackers my mother fixed and carried in her purse, wrapped in napkins, every day of the trip. At dinner, we’d go to a small restaurant near the motel, where my father would order one large plate of spaghetti and four extra plates. My mother would then serve each of us three kids a small portion of spaghetti from the main plate, and she and my father would share what was left.
This is how we traveled. Food was not something my dad was going to spend much money on during a trip. Once, my dad’s job gave him a family trip to New York City. We stayed in the Essex House hotel in Central Park — the swankiest accommodations we had ever seen. Tang and the food bag came right along with us.
And this is how I traveled around the world for 70 days as a first-time solo traveler right before my 60th birthday, spending an average of only $50 a day for lodging and food. My dad would have been proud.
I didn’t splurge on elaborate floating breakfast trays, cocktails in soaring skytowers, or showy restaurant dinners. I didn’t give a f*ck about IG-worthy pics when I planned my trip and travel budget. Every hotel, guesthouse, and riad I stayed in included a huge breakfast each day. (I did not stay in any hostels, though there are many beautiful ones with options for private rooms.) I made my own dinners and cocktails, and carried non-perishable breakfast leftovers and a refillable purifying water bottle for all my lunches on the go. On the rare occasions I ordered dinner out I would put half of it in a Ziploc bag I always carried with me, to take and eat for another meal the next day. Some tours also included meals in the price. I shopped for food and alcohol at local markets, grocery stores, and 7-Elevens, carrying my purchases “home” in a foldable backpack. I walked almost everywhere to save money on transportation. I lost more than 10 pounds.
For 70 days I washed and air dried my clothes. Did my own hair. Used only free Wi-Fi. Got my workouts not from special equipment or classes, but from hiking, carrying groceries (and wine) for miles, walking up and down hundreds of steps multiple times every day. And then there was lugging and lifting the one carryon bag I brought for those 70 days of simple, minimal, authentic living while traveling in Portugal, Morocco, Egypt, Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan.
I’ve not traveled since I returned from Colombia, where I celebrated my 60th birthday last year. The pandemic stopped travel, but I’ve tried to continue living the way I traveled — simply, minimally, authentically, and frugally. Yes, lockdowns and quarantines have just about made living simply the de facto standard. But now that restrictions are being lifted and weather is warming here I know it’s critical for me to continue making these same money-saving choices. Why? Because the money I’m saving by living frugally and simply in early retirement is bringing me closer to my dream of moving to Portugal.
Saving money and cutting expenses is what enabled me to retire at 59 in the first place. When I was working I put as much as 24 percent of my pay into retirement savings. I started putting away small amounts of money in an IRA mutual fund at 25. I never bought a Starbucks coffee unless someone gave me a gift card. I made my own coffee and packed my lunch every day. I bought my first house when I was 28 and single. It was an abandoned fixer-upper that was owned by a church, and my dad and I fixed it up. I sold it at a 40-percent return, and went on to do 9 more real estate transactions.
Any extra money I received went to paying off debt or investing. Nothing fancy, nothing big, just slow and steady saving. Then when I decided to retire early, I still had to slash $1,000 a month off my expenses to make it work. I do not receive a teacher pension because I only taught for 14 years as a second career. I pay out-of-pocket for my own health insurance since I’m too young for Medicare. I am not a millionaire. I am single and doing this on my own. Solo woman traveler…solo woman retiree…solo living my authentic life.
My around-the-world trip was an atypical afterthought, and I used an unplanned retirement incentive check to pay for it. I almost invested the money, as usual. I thought about using it to pay down my mortgage (yes, I still have a mortgage)…or replace my driveway…or some other “sensible” thing I normally would have done. I did at least get an awesome travel rewards credit card to charge everything I could for and on the trip, earning $1,000 cash back, and then paid off the entire balance with the incentive check when I returned.
I’m so glad I decided to go on this first solo journey. I learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of, while learning about how other cultures live. Now, I’m applying that experience to living a simpler, cheaper life here at home. I walk almost everywhere. I don’t have cable TV or even Internet, so I don’t stream movies or watch videos. No Netflix or Hulu here. I don’t subscribe to food or fitness programs, or any paid subscriptions whatsoever. I use the library instead of buying books. I DIY my own hair, gel manicures, pedicures, and Brazilian bikini waxes😳. Twice a year I do go to a salon for a haircut, relaxer, color, and highlights, which runs $200. At home I don’t use anything on my face, hair, or body that doesn’t come from a grocery, drug, or dollar store.
I don’t have any credit card debt.
I eat cheap but healthy food. Lots of peanut butter, oatmeal, nonfat plain Greek yogurt, beans galore, grains, fresh fruit, leafy greens, canned fish, pasta, and broth to keep food and grocery expenses under $100 a month. I’m again reminded of my father, who could eat cold baked beans straight from the can every single day. I’m not that bad. Yet. I allow an additional $25 a month “splurge” to treat myself. If I do splurge on a restaurant meal, I still take half of it home to enjoy for another meal the next day. Eating smaller portions is another carryover from my travels to other countries, where people just don’t eat the gigantic portions we eat here. Thanks to these 2-for-1 meals, I’ve accumulated enough unused splurge money to pay for beginner golf lessons in June.
I prepare my own discreet cocktail picnics instead of hitting restaurant/bar happy hours. I make gifts for people rather than spend money. At Christmas I give to charity in the names of family members, then write off the deduction on my taxes. Folks give me gift cards or booze for birthday and Christmas gifts. I’ve given away about 40-50 percent of my belongings, and I don’t want any more stuff. Simple living. With wine and martinis.
This is not a life everyone would enjoy, but it’s a life I’ve absolutely loved for the last two years. By living my daily life here at home the same way I traveled around the world — mindful of every choice and on a shoestring budget — I don’t have to work even part-time. I’m just writing my blog and book, taking classes to learn new stuff, getting my certifications in new-to-me specialties, and even working on a proposal for a retiree Relaunch Apprenticeship at a whiskey distillery. Because you’re never too old to launch something new, and how cool would that be to learn how something I love is made.
Of course, I know unexpected emergencies could come up and derail my plans. Something catastrophic could happen that would require me to use a chunk of my savings. (Please note: this is not an invitation for more Bitcoin and Forex spam. WTF is up with that?) But right now I’m on track to get my apartment on the ocean in Portugal, and I’m continuing to make the choices that are putting me closer to my dream.
What is your dream?
April is National Poetry Month and every week this month I’ll feature some of my favorite poems by Black poets. This one, written in 1920 by Georgia Douglas Johnson, celebrates making dreams come true.
The right to make my dreams come true,
I ask, nay, I demand of life,
Nor shall fate’s deadly contraband
Impede my steps, nor countermand;
Too long my heart against the ground
Has beat the dusty years around,
And now at length I rise! I wake!
And stride into the morning break!
Credit: This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on February 20, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets. “Calling Dreams” originally appeared in the January 1920 issue of The Crisis. Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/calling-dreams
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