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Earlier this spring I went on a perfect vacation: My boyfriend and I took an 800-mile road trip from our home in Austin, Texas, to Big Bend Ranch State Park on the Mexican border.
We spent four days hiking, relaxing and eating delicious home-cooked meals. In the mornings we were soaking up sun in one of the last truly wild places in the U.S., then in the evenings gazing at the Milky Way under clear starry skies. The best part of it all was that it only cost $262 total — just $131 each.
We didn’t stay in fancy hotels or eat at trendy restaurants. We bought food at the grocery store and cooked at the campsites where we slept. Gas constituted most of our spending, which is unavoidable on a road trip.
But I enjoyed myself a whole lot more than I would have if we'd booked a luxury cruise.
Spending and Struggling
I’m pretty frugal by nature, but it was two years ago that my thrifty mentality cemented itself as a way of life. Have you ever been truly broke? Like needing to make the last $60 in your checking account stretch more than a week broke?
I have. I graduated college in New England in 2011, with no job and a mountain of student loans. I moved to Austin and waited tables for two years after graduation, trying and failing to find a full-time job. I made enough to pay my bills, and I could grab a drink one or two nights a week. But I wasn’t saving, and any emergency costs went straight on my credit card.
Despite the fact that I had no money, I also had a serious case of wanderlust. So I took two weeks off from waitressing and flew to London, Belfast and Dublin. My plane ticket cost $1,000, and I spent another $600 between food, drinks and travel.
My overseas trip made me want to see more of the world, but I came back stressed. I’d charged everything, and I had no plan for how to pay it off. That new debt, plus my student loans, combined with the fact that I was still waiting tables, put me $20K in the hole. I realized that I had to get a handle on my spending.
Blogging My Way Out of Debt
In 2014 I starting a blog, From Frugal to Free, to chronicle my attempt to budget and repay debt. First, I started tracking and minimizing my spending.
I took on some side hustles and doubled my $15K-per-year waitress salary.
Slowly but surely my financial life turned around. Today, I’m debt-free and working for myself as a blogger while taking on part-time gigs to supplement.
My Cheap Travel Tricks
My four-day vacation at Big Bend took place the first weekend of May, but I started saving toward it long before then. I picked the dates two months in advance. I looked up how long it would take us to get there and the gas prices in the area. I knew exactly how many meals we’d be eating and how much we would need to camp each night.
Having all this information meant I could estimate costs and then brainstorm ways to reduce them. For example, I saved on food by buying veggie and hummus wraps, bagels, peanut butter, protein bars and trail mix before we left. And rather than jet off to a hotel in Vegas, we drove to a campsite, which cost us only a $3 park entry fee and $8 per night for the site.
If you think that traveling is outside your budget or has to cost an entire month's paycheck, I encourage you to reassess your travel plans. Simple changes in both your day-to-day life and your travel style can add up to big savings. Can you stay with a friend to eliminate hotel fees? Can you cut out one expense for a month and sock away that money for the trip?
You’ll be amazed at the changes you’re capable of when you alter your spending to make a goal happen.