How Can I Save for a Vacation When I’m Already Broke?

If you’re serious about going on an awesome trip, it generally comes down to going without. Photo: Lambert/Getty Images

Therese works in hospital administration in Baltimore, Maryland, and would love to take a big trip when she turns 30 in June. She doesn’t know where she’ll go, but she wants to explore someplace new and far-flung. Her past travels have mostly been limited to weddings and visiting friends and relatives within the United States (plus a few beach vacations in Florida that weren’t particularly adventurous), and she wants this trip to be different — eye-opening and horizon-expanding. However, she doesn’t have much in the way of savings, and she doesn’t want to start her 30s in debt. How can she finance this trip responsibly?

Of all the ways to spend your hard-earned cash, travel is more like a gold mine than a money pit. It may be the only discretionary expense that has produced measurable data in improving one’s happiness levels and capacity for empathy, and in my own personal experience, it’s worth a thousand times more than the material goods on which I’ve frittered away my cash over the years. I can’t name a single pair of shoes or an item of clothing I bought in 2013 (though I’m sure there were many), but I have vivid memories of a trip to Switzerland that year, right down to a mysterious greasy sausage I purchased at a stand next to Rotsee Lake, which was so delicious I went back for seconds.

Travel can go awry, but even when it gets hellish — your luggage disappears, your hotel room (or, you know, hostel bunk bed) smells weird, and you’re tethered to the bathroom with a miserable case of Montezuma’s revenge — the experience morphs into a lesson of adaptability, and makes your normal life feel like a vacation by comparison (there’s nothing like homesickness to tilt your perspective). So, you get an A-plus for priorities, Therese. Chances are, this 30th-birthday adventure will leave you financially poorer, but much wealthier in worldliness and cocktail-party conversation, at the very least.

But as valuable as travel is, it’s no excuse for going into debt or cannibalizing your emergency fund.

To avoid this, you’ll need to do two things: (1) Sock money away, and (2) Scheme up a plan to travel within your means. No. 1 is infinitely more boring, but it must be done. “If you’re serious about going on an awesome trip, it generally comes down to going without,” says Stephanie Parker, who writes the blog Big World Small Pockets. “That means saying no to that great ticketed event and not buying that new dress. But keep your eyes focused on your goals. Write yourself notes about them, and put them on your office desk, next your bed, and wherever else you’ll look at them often.”

To scrape together travel funds after college, Parker ginned up her own mathematical formula: “I was living in London, working for arts charities and earning very little,” she says. “I knew I had to save hard if I wanted to go away in a short space of time, so I worked out how much I would need to travel, divided it by the amount of weeks until my departure date, et voilà — that was the amount I needed to put away each week. I then made sure that every time my paycheck came in, I siphoned that amount into a savings fund and made myself survive off the meager remains. It was hard, but ultimately successful.”

Discipline is key, but extreme asceticism can backfire. “Be realistic,” Parker cautions. “Overestimating the amount you can save is ultimately counterproductive, because if you keep restricting yourself too much and failing, you will become disheartened and eventually abandon the project.”

On the upside, planning this vacation could make you a better steward of your money in general. According to psychologist Brad Klontz, co-founder of the Financial Psychology Institute, visualizing positive goals for where you want your money to go (also known as a “spending plan”) is the most effective way to create healthy long-term habits, as opposed to a harsh deprivation mind-set (“crap, I should spend less”) that leads to burnout and emotion-driven splurges. “If you can get excited about the big things you really want, it becomes easier to cut down on the things that don’t matter,” he says.

Ashlea Halpern, a former magazine editor turned full-time travel writer (she’s now editor-at-large for AFAR and the founder/editor of Cartogramme), funded her first lengthy trip by saving scrupulously for years. “It boiled down to fierce determination and reprioritizing what was most important to me,” she says. “When I had a steady paycheck, I was very disciplined about setting aside anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of it. For every purchase I considered, I would conduct a cost-comparison analysis: What would a $300 pair of shoes buy me in terms of travel? Well, it could equal three months’ travel insurance. It could be a ticket from Bangkok and Tokyo. It could be a weeklong stay in a boutique hotel in George Town, Penang. It could be two months’ worth of street food in Singapore. Everything is relative. Whatever it was, it wasn’t worth the damn shoes — which I would probably destroy while traveling anyway.”

Another trick is to automate. “My husband and I have a certain amount of money transferred automatically to our savings account each time we get paid,” said Shereen Rayle, author of Shereen Travels Cheap. “That way, you never see it and you don’t miss it. We also keep that account at a different bank, so there’s no way we can mistakenly spend it.” (Multiple studies have shown automation to be an effective method for saving in general — humans are cognitively lazy, so you might as well make passivity your friend.)

In tandem with banking as much of your paycheck as possible, plot out the specifics of what you’ll do with it. Knowing how much your trip will cost will obviously help you set exact financial benchmarks, but it will also build anticipation — a 2010 study showed that looking forward to a trip actually boosts happiness levels more than the post-trip glow. What’s more, research enables you to avoid money-sucking tourist traps and save cash on the two main expenses: airfare and lodging.

The internet is awash with flight-finding hacks, so I won’t dive into them here, but standard tips include setting alerts with Google Flights and comparing prices on Matrix. Finding a place to stay is a more interesting venture, and variable depending on location. Go ahead and get obsessive about stalking Airbnb, VRBO, bed and breakfasts, and hotels — poring over your options will keep the trip front-of-mind, and reinforce what you’re saving for.

Finally, take pride in putting some elbow grease into your itinerary. There’s no need to debate whose experiences are more authentic, but doesn’t it feel cooler to discover something on your own, without paying someone else to spoon-feed it to you? I’m sure my Swiss sausage wouldn’t have been as appetizing (or memorable) if a tour guide had served it up to me on a plate — and it would have cost more, to boot. “Really ask yourself, ‘Is this something I could figure out how to do myself, or do I really need to pay this company to do it for me?’” says Halpern. “Be independent. Be fearless. For most things in life, there is a way to DIY — it just takes determination.”

How Can I Save Money to Travel When I’m Already Broke?