Saving money for a long adventure (aka “How can you afford this?”)

Warning #1: If you are squeamish about money, this post is not for you.

Warning #2: In parts, this post is pretty London-centric. Sorry about that.

The first thing a lot of people ask when I tell them I’m doing a three-month US road trip is, “How can you afford that?” When I lived in London I was on what is considered a low salary there (around £20 000 a year before tax) – and yet I still managed to save £3000 in one year, which covered the cost of the rental car (just under £2300 for the whole thing – less if divided between two or more people) and the cost of my return flight (just over £500) with spending money left over. Lots of people asked how I did it. In this post I’ll lay out exactly how.

1. Set a goal

Unless you’ve suddenly inherited a bunch of money or won the lottery, you’ll probably need to save like I did. To work out how much you should be aiming to save, follow these steps:

  1. Work out how much money you’ll need roughly to do the road trip (take into account flights, car rental, accommodation, insurance and spending money – remember there are ways to save money while travelling as well – eg. by booking flights several months in advance, doing a bit of price comparison and booking on the right day, and Couchsurfing or staying with friends rather than in hotels).
  2. Compare this to how much money you actually have.
  3. Subtract number 2 from number 1.
  4. This is the amount you need to save.

2. Keep track of your expenses

Minimise the amount of cash you use to as close to zero as you can, so that at the end of the month, you can look at your bank statement and actually SEE what you spent your money on. When I was saving money I had an Excel table and every month I documented my spending and income. This way I could keep track of how much I was spending on rent, travel, groceries, etc. This will reveal to you how much per month you are saving already (if anything), as well as areas where you are spending ludicrous amounts every month where you could easily cut down.

3. Set a timeframe

Great! Now you have a target and an idea of how much you could potentially save every month. Now you need to set a realistic timeframe in which you can save this amount. Divide the amount you want to save by the amount you can realistically save each month, and this is how many months it will take you to save your target amount.

My income was around £1500 a month after tax and I realised I could save, on average, £250 a month. 3000 divided by 250 = 12. And that’s how I saved £3000 in a year.

4. Work out a strategy

I realised I was saving about £50 – £100 a month without even trying. However, it would have taken me four years to save £3000 if I was only saving £75 a month on average. I didn’t want to wait that long, so I started looking at where I could make cuts to increase the amount I was saving to between £200 and £300 every month. Where you can start making cuts to increase the amount you save each month really depends on you as an individual – how much you earn and how much you spend to begin with. The important thing is to know what you’re spending your money on. If after a couple of months of keeping track of your finances, you realise you’re spending £100 every month on jewellery or on a gym membership that you never use – that’s somewhere you can make a cut. Decide which things are essential and which things are non-essential. Decide how much you’re going to spend each month on essential things and non-essential things and stick to it.

5. Money-saving tips

Here are a couple of specific pieces of advice for those who need a bit more guidance:

  • The best piece of advice I can give you for saving money – especially if you live in London – is to stop spending money on public transport. Walk or cycle as much as possible. Initially I was spending over £120 a month on a zone 1-2 travelcard – once I realised what a ludicrous amount of money that was, I stopped doing that and bought a bike for £160, and the amount I was spending on public transport every month went down to around £40 – that was a saving of £80 every month. I made back the money on the bike within 1.25 months and after that it was just save save save. You can’t cycle all the time – it’s not a good idea to cycle when you’re drunk, for example, and I didn’t particularly like cycling in adverse weather conditions –  but even if you only do it say 3/4 of the time when you would have taken the tube – big saving. Yes, cycling in London is scary – but £80 a month is a pretty big incentive to overcome your fear.
  • If you have a National Rail card and you live in London – link it to your Oyster card. This gives you a third off off-peak travel on the TFL network, as well as the usual third off rail fares. The Young Person’s National Rail card is technically only for 16-25 year olds BUT you can keep it for longer if you’re smart about it – you can apply for a new one-year card up to the day before your 26th birthday, and a new three-year card up to the day before your 24th birthday, so this way you can keep the card until you’re 27. Also, if you’re a student, you can apply for the railcard at any age – so because I did a Masters when I was 25, I applied for a new railcard right at the end of my degree, and even though I was already 26 I was able to get it for another year.
  • Don’t buy your lunch – prepare it in advance. I realised I was spending around £5 a day on lunch – that’s £25 a week, which is £100 a month. Once I started bringing my own lunch in – last night’s leftovers, a home made sandwich, a salad or small meal I’d prepared specially from whatever I had in the fridge – that was another huge saving. I wasn’t always very good at it and sometimes I’d forget or couldn’t be bothered. But even if I only did it around half the time – that was still a saving of around £50 a month.
  • Cook at home and don’t buy meat. When you eat out vegetarian options aren’t always that much cheaper. But in the supermarket they are. Your grocery shopping expenses can go down significantly if you stop buying meat.
  • Get free haircuts by trainee hairdressers – when I went I even got free champagne and popcorn!
  • Don’t buy new stuff – get your old stuff fixed. When my bags or shoes broke, I took them to a local repair shop where they were fixed for less than £10. When two pairs of headphones broke, instead of buying new ones, I took them to a free community repair event.
  • Obviously, in London the biggest expense is rent. If you’re willing to move, there are free or cheap housing options – there’s schemes like HomeShare, where you live with an old person and volunteer ten hours of your week to help them with things like grocery shopping for vastly reduced rent, Property Guardians where you live in an abandoned or disused building for vastly reduced rent, or you could even try living on a houseboat. I investigated some of these options but in the end didn’t go for any of them – I just stuck with a normal private landlord, and even though I was paying what I considered a lot of money, it was actually on the cheap end for London – £625 a month plus bills, which came to about £700 a month altogether. This was around half my monthly income – even still, I was able to limit my other expenses to around £500 a month and this was how I was still able to save around £250 a month. If you’re looking to move and wondering how much you should be spending a month, see what your monthly income is, see what you can reduce your non-rent expenses to with the cuts I mentioned above (£500 – £600 a month was fine for me), work out how much your target amount to save every month is and subtract these two numbers from your monthly income. The number that is left is how much you have to spend on rent. One thing to take into consideration is that rents get cheaper as you go further out, but travel costs get more expensive. So take these two things into account – if fact, maybe consider rent and travel as one cost together when comparing rent prices.
  • If you’re a student, become a vice warden or subwarden. You get free accommodation in central London in exchange for doing a few ‘on duty’ shifts a month. I was a vice warden for thirteen months while doing my Masters and I estimate it saved me about £8000 – £10000 in rent and travel costs.

6. Don’t make yourself miserable

Lots of people think that saving money is about not doing anything fun. But I think that’s completely the wrong approach – if you say no to doing anything fun and just sit at home feeling sorry for yourself in an attempt to try and “save money”, you are quickly going to give up and end up splurging loads of money on a bender or comfort food. The way to do long-term, sustainable saving over a period of months or years is not to give up doing the things that you enjoy doing, but think about how you can do them more cost-effectively. Like going to the cinema? Odeon do £6 tickets on Monday – Thursday evenings, so just make sure you go then rather than on a weekend when tickets are upwards of £10. Like eating out? Find cheaper restaurants – even in London I was able to find places to eat out for £10 or less. Like drinking in the pub? Buy cheaper drinks, or not as many. This way you can still enjoy yourself and not feel like you’re giving up your life to save money, which means you’re much more likely to meet your target amount every month.

Allow yourself some luxuries but limit yourself to two or three. For example, my luxuries were entertainment and travel. So I allowed myself to go to the cinema and to go on holiday, because those are things I enjoy – but I did them cheaply. But I didn’t buy clothes or electronics, for example, because those weren’t things I really cared about.

7. Don’t give up!

Saving money isn’t just for people on low incomes. I know people who made much more than I did but still found themselves short at the end of the month. By being savvy with your money you can start saving for your dreams, goals and ambitions, be they world travel, owning a house, starting a family or anything else, rather than just funding your current lifestyle, which can always infinitely expand to fit your current salary.

By following these few simple tips, a lot more people could reach their saving goals, and adventures like this could be a reality rather than a dream.

Good luck!

 

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