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We all have dreams: buying a home, driving off the lot in a new car, taking a trip around the world. For every major life milestone, there are real people out there who've made it happen. In “How I Paid For It,” these financial rock stars share how they accomplished their most challenging money goals — and what they learned from the experience.
Here, one woman breaks down how she prepped herself financially for nearly five years so she could quit her job, go freelance and travel the world.
I worked in public relations for 10-plus years before I realized I wanted to take my life down a different path. I had been working in the booming high-tech sector, and for many jobs I commanded a nice paycheck with a 9-to-5 schedule. But it just didn’t feel like this was meant to be my life. I felt so much more right when I was on vacation, and for many years I’d been toying with the idea to take some time off to travel more and kickstart a freelance writing career.
The turning point came for me in 2013, after the Boston Marathon bombing. I lived in the neighborhood where the shootout with the bomber occurred. At 2 a.m. the SWAT team knocked on my door, telling me to take shelter in a room without a window. The only room that fit the bill was the bathroom, so there I sat with my granola bars and tequila and pet rabbit, watching live news updates for hours.
After that experience, I said, “That’s it! I’m going to Morocco.” And the trip was so incredible that I sobbed on the plane back home. That’s the moment I realized my life needed to change, and I had to pursue my travel and writing career — but it would take me nearly five years to get my finances in order to make the dream a reality.
Year 1(ish): Taking Stock of My Money Situation
While I didn't have a set plan for my future yet, I knew I would need money. That meant taking a hard look at my financial situation. I had $15,000 in debt. A little bit of that was student loans, but most was credit card debt. Even though I was making a good salary I was living paycheck to paycheck, spending tons of money on food especially. I’d go out to dinner, buy five kinds of fancy cheeses with three breads, and shop at the specialty grocer instead of the supermarket.
As a result, I’d been putting my annual vacations on my credit card. I’d keep about $1,500 in my checking account and think, “I’ve got money!” — even though I realized that made no sense considering my debt. This realization was in late 2013, so for the new year, I vowed to curb my spending.
Year 2: Cutting Wasteful Spending
Cutting the biggest aspects of my needless spending wasn’t actually that hard. Yes, you need food and clothing, but you don’t need three types of bread every week and two new pairs of shoes every month. I began buying only what I truly needed.
These cuts helped me save $1,000 per month. As I result, I could pay down $5,000 in debt, which felt great. For the first time, it felt like I could do this. But, I still had a long way to go, and I wanted to pay down that debt more quickly. So it was time for some more drastic changes.
Year 3: Building My Savings
I decided that I wanted to save $30,000 before changing anything at work. So I made a few more relatively easy tweaks: I switched to Target brand groceries and shopped at local discount chains for clothing. I completely stopped buying lunch out during the week, which had been costing me $375 a month if I did it every day.
But the biggest decision was the hardest one. I moved in with a roommate, halving my $1,400 monthly rent to $700. I was only able to sustain this for about 18 months because I much prefer living alone, but it made a huge difference. I reduced my credit card debt to $7,500 and increased my savings to $5,000. Again, I was moving in the right direction, but I wasn’t really there yet.
Years 4 to 5: Ramping Up, With the Help of a Budget
To get to my goal faster, I realized I needed to make a budget and really hold myself to it.
I cut my food spending by $200 a month by sticking to a strict grocery budget and limiting dinner and drinks out. I cut the cable cord and the Starbucks habit. I decided against getting a new car, as originally planned, because my 11-year-old one still ran fine. And no more “popping in” to Target just to browse.
I also joined the “slow clothing” movement and bought secondhand, and decluttered by selling items I didn’t need on sites like ThredUp for a $2,000 profit. I also ditched the long weekend trips, knowing my real goal was in sight. Every time I looked at my bank account, I was so excited to see it growing.
Meanwhile, I tapped my media network to pick up freelance writing on the side. That was a great boost not only for income, but also to see if I could sustain a full-time freelance career.
At times it was hard to find the energy for the side work. I had taken a high-stress but very well-paying PR job, for which I took home $5,300 a month after taxes. That salary was great, but it was sticking to my budget for about 18 months that made the real difference. I was just about there.
When I finally felt ready to resign, I had made it to about $25,000 in savings and down to $2,000 in debt — while nearly maxing out my annual 401(k) contributions. That wasn’t quite the $30,000 in savings and $0 debt balance I’d planned for, but I felt OK about it.
When I gave my month’s notice at work, I was walking on air.
I spent the next seven to eight months traveling across Europe and Southeast Asia, while also working on freelance writing and marketing projects. I'm currently back in Boston working on a new project, living out of two suitcases and Airbnbs.
I view life and money very differently now. I own far fewer things, and every time I go to buy something I stop and ask myself if I really need it.
I'd like to continue traveling, but at a slower pace. I'm still working on building a sustainable business — I couldn’t live in a major U.S. city on my current income — but I've found it's important to take things slowly. Because I set aside enough money at the start of the process, I have more freedom to build a business that better suits my lifestyle.
The most important thing I learned: Having a financial plan means setting and sticking to budgets and deadlines. Knowing you should spend less is not the same as having a spreadsheet or tracking your progress. If you set the goal and hold yourself to it, I honestly believe anyone can do what I’ve done.