These Small Hacks Helped Me Save $16K & Travel For A Year

Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Just over a year ago, I quit my job to travel the world. Twenty-five countries and an unforgivable number of sleeper buses later, I can now say that I have dated a professional soccer player in Pristina, accidentally eaten duck’s stomach in Shanghai, e-scootered among ancient pagodas in Bagan, bathed excessively in Budapest, dove with walking sharks in the Halmahera Sea, and frolicked in an amusement park at the bottom of an ancient salt mine in Transylvania. And all of these unforgettable experiences started with just one thing: A 100% full-on commitment to savings.

Now, before I get into how I did it, I am well aware that when a lot of people read the title of this article the word “privilege” will begin to drift across their minds. And yes, I know I am very privileged. I have an American passport. I have a college degree and no debts thanks to my frugal parents. I had a job that put me in the top 1% of world incomes that in turn allowed me to save. (FYI, if you make over $34,000 a year, you are in the 1% of the wealthiest people on the planet). I didn’t (and still don’t) have to support anyone financially besides myself. I am well aware that not everyone can just uproot their lives to travel, but it was something I could and wanted to do, and so I figured out a way to do it.

From perusing travel blogs, I concluded that the average cost for a year of solo travel was somewhere between $14,000 and $18,000. I inherited my parents' frugality, but I also didn’t want to worry constantly about my expenses while abroad, so I made my goal a reasonable $16,000. At the time, I was living in New York City making $42,000 a year working for a restaurant group. This broke down to $2,336 a month after taxes, from which I took away my monthly costs of rent ($865), utilities ($35), and my unlimited subway card ($112 at the time). Given that I didn’t want to be waiting forever to jet off into the unknown, I made my savings goal a very steep $1,000 per month, which gave me $326 to spend on everything else. Although I didn’t meet my goal exactly every month, I did come pretty damn close. Find out how I did it, ahead.

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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
I Tracked Every. Single. Cent
This one is so straightforward, but honestly the most helpful. Instead of using an app, which I’d tried with varying degrees of success, I went for a plain old Excel spreadsheet. Every night, I typed in every single purchase I made, down to the last cent of sales tax. Pulling up the doc every night helped me see where my money was going, but more importantly, it helped me remember what I was saving for. (Hello, professional soccer player!)
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
I Embraced Free Food In All Forms
I was lucky that my employer offered comp staff meals. But until I had a budget, I didn’t always take advantage of them, often deciding to meet friends at another restaurant or cook for myself. But my travel plans forced me to choose the free option whenever possible. Only having to feed myself for two days instead of seven was a savings.

When I did go out, I had my precious Excel sheet always in the back of my mind. I freely admit that I have a huge weakness for delicious and overpriced food, but when I was trying to save I had to reign in my inclinations to indulge. If I had $30 left for the week, it was holding back on happy hours and DIY-ing kitchen concoctions. If I had $150 left over, I let myself enjoy, guilt-free, at a restaurant I'd been dying to try. If a special occasion like a birthday was coming up, I would try to save and budget accordingly. If I had no money left, sometimes it had to be a night of Netflix at someone’s apartment or by myself as my friends had fun without me. Saying no was tough, which was why it helped to always keep my goal in mind. The more I saved, the quicker I could go.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
I Made My Money Work For Me
For easy access to my savings, I kept a large chunk in an American Express savings account, which has a 0.9% interest rate (which is higher than the .6% interest rate common at other banks) and eventually earned over $150. I also did some research on the best travel cards, finally deciding on the Chase Platinum Card, which has no international transaction fees and an excellent travel point system.

Not only did I avoid all those pesky fees (which really add up), but using it on as many buses and restaurants and hotels as possible during my travels (all of which earn double points on the card) eventually helped me get a $700 flight for free. I also researched my best banking options, deciding on a Charles Schwab checking account. Not only does it have no ATM fees ever, but I got $13 back a month for fees charged by other banks no matter where in the world they were.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
I Stopped Going To Fancy Exercise Classes
There was once a point in my life when I would easily spend $100 a week going to a posh studio to have someone else yell me into shape for an hour. When I really looked hard at my financial goals, I couldn’t justify a $35 class. Instead I downloaded a yoga app, learned some body-weight exercises, and started running outside more. In the winter, I spent $10 a month on a Planet Fitness membership.

And the most surprising thing? I didn't miss them that much. For the most part, choosing a much cheaper solution had no impact on my quality of life but a huge one on my bank account balance.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
I Embraced Public Transit
Weirdly, this turned out to be the hardest restriction I put on myself: No cabs, no Ubers, no Lyfts, no nothing besides the good old subway. At the time I lived in Washington Heights, a part of Manhattan that is so far uptown that it isn’t even included in the “Uptown” section of tourist maps. I really liked the neighborhood and its relatively more affordable rents, but man, did I live far away from things!

It was a manageable distance for my hourlong daily commute to work Downtown, but getting home after a night out in the Lower East Side or (god forbid!) Brooklyn could take up to two hours. But such was my self-inflicted price for a night out. Just the thought of two hours on the subway at midnight in the middle of January definitely made me think twice about making plans I really didn’t want to make and, in turn, spending money that I really shouldn’t be spending. (For perspective on my temptation, a cab would be $30 for a mere 20 climate-controlled minutes.)
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
I Worked My Side Hustle
My budget left me $326 to spend every four weeks, but in reality my life sometimes required more than that. I had been freelance writing for a few months before I started planning for my year abroad, but in 2014, I started pitching more places and writing more frequently. It certainly took extra time and extra brainpower after my 9-to-5, but the more I did, the more I eventually made — getting about $400 extra a month by the time I left the city.

At the end of roughly a year and half, I had just over $14,500 saved, which grew to my final total of $16,307.16 after the lease on my apartment ended and I got my $1,730 security deposit back. Six weeks later, I was on a plane to Milan (followed by a train to Slovenia and then a bus to Croatia and then another bus to Montenegro.) It was 11 months of freedom and adventures that were 100% worth it.
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