When I was younger I traveled extensively on very little money. I still travel frequently, but these days I have a little more money and I prefer more comfortable experiences. (It’s just not as comfortable to sleep on the floor or in a tent as it was when I was twenty.) Some of the best travel experiences I ever had came from traveling on almost no money. At the time it’s just the way things were, but I now realize that I was really learning a lot of financial lessons. Here are my top ten:
That the rest of the world doesn’t live like we do: This is the biggest lesson I learned. When you travel, even if you stay in your own country, you are exposed to different ways of life. You learn that what is comfortable in one area is considered luxurious in others. You learn that there are many areas that do not live with the consumerism that is rampant in the U.S. It’s an eye opener to see how many different ways there are to live and how many different income levels there are. When you stay only in your tiny neighborhood it’s easy to think that that’s the way the rest of the world does or should live, which just isn’t true.
That you can have fun without spending a fortune: Traveling with little money opens your eyes to all of the free and low cost things there are to do to have fun. When you have no other choice, you start to see how much fun can be had by taking a Frisbee and a sandwich to the park, or how many places offer free or low cost admission. It’s a lesson I’ve carried into my every day life.
How to haggle: Haggling isn’t commonplace in the U.S., but it is in many other countries. Once I learned that haggling was acceptable, I learned how to do it well. My first attempts were laughable, but I mastered the art of creating a deal that will work for the seller and for me. It’s come in handy in my daily life when buying a car or other big ticket items, or visiting flea markets or yard sales.
Always check your change: I never used to pay much attention to the change I received in stores. I always assumed it was right. But in a foreign country, where you don’t readily understand the currency, you quickly learn to check to avoid getting ripped off. Some businesses intentionally cheat tourists, knowing they won’t bother to count and understand the change they’re given. I always check my change now and more than once I’ve caught some significant mistakes.
Keep your money safe at all times: I used to be kind of lax about keeping my money and my purse safe. Travel taught me otherwise. I had my purse stolen once and my room broken into another time. From those experiences I learned to not leave money in the room (I carry a money belt) and to keep my purse strapped to myself or another object at all times.
That time and experience is worth more than money: When I travel I focus more on what I’m doing and where I am than money. I realized early on that if I had to choose between money and more travel time, I’d choose the time. It kept me from spending too much (meaning I’d have to go home sooner). I’d much rather focus on experiences and personal time than money. As a result, I’m always careful with money so I don’t have to work all the time just to pay the bills.
Live simply: When you have to carry your belongings on your back, you realize you don’t need nearly as much as you think you do. I try to keep my “stuff” accumulation to a minimum. I may not have to carry it every day, but I still have to deal with it and the less I have, the less I have to deal with.
Budgeting: Traveling with little money forces you to create a budget and then live within it. You have to determine what’s most important (food, shelter, and money to eventually get home) and pay those first. Other things can come out of what’s left. It’s a smaller scale than a household budget, but once I got older I realized I already had a firm budgeting foundation from living on the road.
Generosity reaps rewards: I didn’t always have a lot of money to be generous with, but when I was able to reward good service I did. It always paid dividends for me. If I couldn’t give money, I would give my hosts my time by doing chores, babysitting, or teaching them English. To this day I try to be generous with both time and money.
There are more options out there than you think: I used to have a very limited conception of the options available for work, housing, and food. But living on the road taught me to have a more open mind and to realize that I didn’t have to be pigeonholed into the life I was raised in. I learned that I was free to create a different type of life that fit me better because I saw people doing it all over the world.
I also learned a lot of other useful tidbits like how to convert exchange rates in my head. When I’m not on the road this makes me fun at parties. During all of my travels I never really thought about the money lessons I was learning. I just enjoyed myself. But looking back I can see that I was laying the foundation for a good financial life. Traveling gave me an appreciation for the way life is in the rest of the world and it taught me how to make do on what I had on hand.