How Living the Way I Traveled is Helping Me Move Abroad Solo in Midlife

Today is Portugal Day, a national holiday in Portugal that honors poet Luís Vaz de Camões. Born around 1524, he is considered Portugal's greatest poet and has been compared to Shakespeare, Dante, and Homer. I love a country that shuts down in celebration of a writer.

I've spent the last three weeks off social media and in a self-imposed European Portuguese immersion. Reading, writing, and watching movies in Portuguese, and doing 4AM calls with bankers, lawyers, and agents in Portugal. You haven't lived until you've read a 15-page contract in Portuguese, and then watched Disney+ in Portuguese with English subtitles and a glass of bourbon. Note to self: wait until the movie is over before getting started on bourbon.

The final piece of my complex Portugal D7 Residency Visa application is almost complete, though, as I was told by a Portuguese real estate agent yesterday, "nothing will happen tomorrow because of the holiday."

As I'm packing up my old life and counting down to my new midlife in Portugal, I thought I'd repost this April 2021 article about how I got to this point.

Feliz Seixta-Feira tudos.

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.

Walking workout

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.

The beachfront apartment I lived in for a month in Portugal. Cost: $30 a night.
I ate at a restaurant only three times during the 24 days I was there alone, and always at small, inexpensive cafes serving local food.
The last week I was in Portugal a friend came to visit me from the U.S., and we ate out five or six times, at nicer restaurants.

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 (I’ve since sold my house)…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 more than $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 (after I sold my house I did finally get Internet service for $59 a month). 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 (mostly) 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 $150 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 $50 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 (a waste of money last year).

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?


Calling Dreams

by Georgia Douglas Johnson

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


All images are my own.

The Hot Goddess

Instagram: retired_rewired_inspired


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37 comments

  1. Hot Goddess it’s so good to read your article. I am quite impressed with your plan of action in getting to Portugal both physically and mentally/financially. Your self-discipline and determination are admirable and convict me that I could do better! Best Wishes and have a great weekend! Leigh

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is the way I grew up, sorta. Mom packed a cooler full of fruit and sandwiches and a Coleman stove to make tea and soup when our family went on a road trip. There were very few fast food joints around and my parents didn’t have the money for them anyways. I have many fond memories of meals at rest stops with my family gathered around an old scarred picnic table.

    And I still enjoy travelling like that. I’ve been on work trips where I’ve stayed in fancy places and been wined and dined 3 rich meals a day but I much prefer eating where the locals do, and taking 1/2 the food back to my room for a later meal…or stopping at the grocery store and stocking up on a few essentials to put together sandwiches to take down to the beach so dining out becomes a treat instead of a necessity.

    The secret that you and I (and many others) have figured out is that the simpler life is so much more fulfilling. Way to go, Hot Goddess!

    Deb

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kudos on your clarity and commitment to simple living and your move to Portugal Natalie. I grew up with a frugal family and mindset too. It has served me to take numerous breaks from career and traditional life choices. My only regret is poor investment choices that wiped out my savings three times. I’ve also learned I need to allow myself some treats along the way as you mentioned.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Brad 💜 I’ve really come to enjoy the satisfaction of frugal living. The markets are scary and I’ve made some poorly timed investments too. I just remind myself it’s for the long term and try not to worry. And yes, here’s to giving ourselves some treats along the way!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Could be the story of my life up until about 55. Worked through university and couldn’t afford to buy milk. For most of life, everything was on a budget. Lunches were always packed right up until I was restructured out of my job at 60. Nice meals out with my husband were about once or twice a year. But Tang. Yuck. I never could do Tang. Kudos to you for your commitment to your life choices.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Wow, this is so inspirational, Natalie! I’ve never thought of applying the cost savings measures to how I live at home but it makes so much sense.

    I remember eating at small climbing huts when climbing the Via Ferrata routes in Italy. We’d take the leftovers, hang them outside the window to keep them cold overnight and then eat those leftovers for lunch.

    You’ve made me remember, think about my current lifestyle and inspired me to do more! Thank you for those gifts!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. You go, girl! And I love that your family travelled to Montreal for Expo 67. That was the year I graduated from McGill and got married … and lived in Montreal. The reason I thought of applying to McGill was because my parents had taken us on a similar road trip in 1960 or so.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. In addition to being a savvy traveler it looks like you have a lot of artistic talent. I spend more on a daily basis when traveling but take fairly short trips to accommodate the budget. Your lifestyle allows you to accomplish your dreams. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I loovvveee hearing about these details! I think because frugality runs in my blood as well and it’s so satisfying to feel and see the results of our frugal spending efforts. Ps I just started beginner golf lessons too!!! 💖💖 I super enjoyed every word of this post and as always, just love watching your dream manifest before our very eyes!! xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I knew you’d get it! It really is so satisfying. Good luck with your golf lessons. My best friend started lessons about the same time I did last year and she LOVES it. Plays all the time and is very good. I did not have the same outcome, lol 😂. Thank you, Libby 💜

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Super impressive!!! I’ve been trying to live more frugally since I started my own small business – but it is so hard in this world of temptation. But this post is really inspiring me to do better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Moksha! The pandemic really helped in this regard. Now that everything is back open and friends are all going out it is much harder not to give in to temptation and I’ve slipped several times.

      Like

  10. Reading this makes me smile 😀 I’m not sure I could muster the same commitment but I’m so happy you’re reaching your dreams!!! Um, did you say you’re writing a book? Did I miss that in an earlier post… I must go back & search!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I might not live to the extreme that you do. But I do my best to try to.live as simple as possible. You my dear friend are an impressive woman. 👏

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Natalie, I LOVE everything about your post. I’m an advocate of taking a break from social media and live away from curated screens. It’s wonderful to learn about Portugal through your eyes, and what you’re doing in preparation of your move. And oh, I love this line “You haven’t lived until…” I might borrow it, in the future. 😀

    My husband and I lead a minimalist lifestyle, too, but not to the extent you go. Still, I relate to what you share here about your frugal way of living and travelling. You are absolutely correct, this lifestyle is not for everyone. You are an inspiration. You’re definitely going to feel right at home in Europe. I say this because I come from a (South African) culture that seems to believe more is better, and here is the opposite.

    Again, I love this post. All the best with the move. I live in hope that one day, we’ll meet in person. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh Khaya, thank you for this. I’m with you on living and doing over sitting and scrolling. Taking a break from social media is part of self-care for me, allowing me to focus on on moving. Finland is at the top of my list of places to visit once I’m living in Europe, and we must plan a meet-up!
      There’s something so freeing about minimalist living. Not everyone understands the satisfaction it can bring, and that’s OK.
      Thank you for your encouragement, my friend 💜

      Liked by 1 person

  13. This is a fabulous post, Natalie. It has stirred up so many fond memories from my own frugal childhood. My parents lived a pretty thrifty life, although they did buy a small farm in the country as soon as my Dad (a former famer) could afford it. We spent most weekends there without any hot water or electricity and they were very happy times. If you come to England once you are living in Portugal, please do get in touch! x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Sue-Anne, thank you so much for your lovely comments here and on IG! So kind! There is a satisfaction in frugality and minimalist living that’s difficult to explain, right? I absolutely plan to visit England after my move and would love to meet IRL! 😊 💜

      Like

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