People who dream of traveling often see saving money as their first step.

Luckily for you, I am really good at saving money. I make less than the median US income, yet I have retirement savings, own a home, and travel for months at a time. Most of my life I’ve made far, far less than the median US income (as a freelancer with no health insurance!) and lived in New York City. And I did this without suffering.

I’m not sharing the same silly (and obvious) tips about cutting back.

I have no use for tips from people who boast about saving money when they make a quarter of a million dollars a year.

Wish you could afford to travel? Here's how to save without budgeting Click To Tweet

am going to assume you’re in a position where your salary should be enough to cover all of your bills and allow for savings, but somehow that money isn’t in your account at the end of the month. If you’re struggling just to get by, that’s a different story. If that’s the case, you’re probably not worried about traveling.

Save more or earn more?

Lots of people will encourage you to earn more instead of worrying about saving money.

The thing is, for most of us, the amount we spend is something we can control. Getting a raise, finding a new job, picking up a second job, or starting a side gig are all things that require things that are outside of our control.

It’s not like this is really an either/or scenario. You can do both.

Plus, saving money is tax-free.

Slow down

I’ve found that the more expensive a place is, the easier it is to find free entertainment. Places where I was carefully counting my pennies to buy groceries offered free museums, theatre in the park, and all sorts of treasures just waiting for me to wander in the doors.

In the beginning of every trip I tend to want to do all the things. I spend a bunch of money, sure, but I also exhaust myself. I end up slowing down the pace not to save money, but for the sake of my sanity.

You don’t have to be traveling to do less. How much of the things you do every day will you even remember three months from now?

When I see and do a bunch of things every day, day after day, I don’t remember any of it. It stops feeling meaningful. I find myself yawning through art museums, bored with these mind blowing works. I get sick of eating at one more hipster restaurant (also, waiting for a table is nonsense). The fewer cocktails I drink, the more I enjoy them when I do.

Use gamification

I’m one of those people who can’t resist checking everything off a list. I’ve taken this to really absurd extremes on whims, like the time I went to every wastewater treatment plant in New York City. Whatever, we all have our hobbies. When I got the Beer Passport I spent the summer chasing flights in 43 bars around the five boroughs, even though pretty early on it felt less fun and more like a (boozy) albatross. I went to the far edge of Staten Island just to check off a box on a little folded piece of paper in my wallet that literally no one cared about.

Given that tendency, it’s easy for me to get into setting arbitrary budget challenges. It’s all about finding ways to turn our…less awesome…personality traits into something useful.

Any time there’s something I actually care about doing — be it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity or something important — it overrides whatever silly challenge I’m engaging in currently. But the things that don’t really matter easily get filtered out.

Track your spending (without a budget)

There are a billion budgeting apps and systems. I don’t use any of them. I probably have several running in the background –silently judging me — but I never check them. The problem is they’re automatic.

Also, none of them work for a life across borders or understand joint accounts. The categories and tagging seem so tedious. Annual expenses and retirement account contributions would ping me with over budget warnings. It was so convoluted and annoying. No personal finance app should be chiding me for maxing out my IRA!

You know what works? I have a note on my phone with a single number. Every time I spend money on something discretionary, I add to it. I have an idea of how much I am comfortable spending each week.

At the end of the week, I pop that number into a spreadsheet that tallies up my average and median weekly spending. It tells me how much I’ve spent so far this year and how much cushion I have (or how much I’ve overspent).

Some weeks have a lot of things worth spending money on. Other weeks involve lots of free things (like long walks and fresh veggies from the garden). The median reminds me to chill out if I’m feeling bad about overspending.

Don’t try to go from blowing tons of money each week to living like a monk. Figure out where you’re starting from and where you want to be. Then adjust your weekly goal down a few dollars at a time until you’ve given yourself time to adjust your way to your ultimate goal.

Really, the important part is simply that I’m tracking how much money is leaving my account. Simply paying attention to what I’m doing is a great way to get me to automatically adjust my spending to nudge it closer to my goal.

Some people do this by using cash. I find this tedious and love credit card perks.

Give back

You know what’s a great way to make sure you don’t blow a ton of money going out? Be busy doing things you care about.

Whenever I’m in one place long enough, I love to volunteer. I’m a huge fan of New York Cares.

Even if you can’t be there to volunteer in person, you can find remote volunteer positions through Idealist. I don’t take design clients anymore, but I still work as a designer on a pro bono basis for a couple organizations.

Volunteering is a great way to practice new skills, build your portfolio, expand your professional network, and have something you feel good about. Saving money is just a natural byproduct, because nights I’m volunteering are nights I’m not out drinking.

Don’t focus on cutting back

Focus on what’s important.

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment. I get talked into agreeing to go out to some concert for a band I don’t even really like. Sales people are so good at their jobs sometimes. I order another round even though I’m tired and have a meeting in the morning.

More and more I just pause and ask myself: Do I care about this?

Do I want this dress? Do I want another drink? Do I even want to go on a second date? Do I actually have any interest in this show? Do I care if I get a new phone? Often the answer is no.

Usually if I’m even thinking about the price of something it’s because it’s either super expensive or I’m not really feeling it.

Before doing something just to save money, ask yourself: Is it worth your time? Do you hate it? If the answer is yes, find something that works better for you.


I have a confession to make: I’ve never saved up for a trip. The first time I went backpacking it was funded by a $5,000 cheque from my grandmother. I worked remotely (back in the olden days when I didn’t carry a laptop and did this work at random university libraries!) and landed back at home with my checking account within $100 of when I’d started.

That trip taught me that, contrary to popular (vacation) belief, traveling is cheaper than staying at home. This holds true (for me at least) even in expensive destinations. It certainly helps that New York City isn’t exactly known for being an affordable place to live.

Skip paying for a hotel and do a home exchange instead. Pick a destination with cheap flights. Talk your boss into letting you go remote for a few weeks.

There you go, you’re only spending the same amount as you would at home.

The longer you’re traveling, the less expensive it is. Even without going to a budget destination.