You Can Have It All (Just Not All At Once)

St. Martin-in-the-FieldEarlier this month, I attended a candlelit baroque concert at the historic St.-Martin-in-the-Fields Church. The Festive Orchestra of London was delightful. My seat cost £8 (about $12.80) and, of course, was up in the nosebleeds. When I bought it, the ticket seller warned me that I wouldn't be able to see the musicians. Would that bother me?

Well, yes.

For me, watching the performers is a big part of a classical concert. Yet ultimately I decided against upgrading to the next ticket level, which would have cost $19.20. I'm traveling on a budget, and saying “yes” to an extra $6.40 would mean saying “no” to something else.

Hearing but not seeing the performers didn't reduce the experience. It just changed it. Instead of watching the cellist, I gazed around the church's beautiful interior. Sometimes I closed my eyes and listened, a new and interesting way to encounter the music.

It was a wonderful evening — and a reminder that I can have some of what I want, but not all of it. Not all at once, anyway.

Opportunity cost
I've learned to adjust my expectations in the past half-dozen years. To complete my divorce, obtain a university degree, travel, and remain a freelancer have required that I live frugally and not buy in (so to speak) to the larger cultural ethos that if more equals better, then a lot more equals a lot better.

And you know what? My life is pretty great. I have the chance to write, to think, to wander. Mostly to wander.

In 2010, I spent only about three months at home. The rest of the time I was traveling to Alaska, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Chicago. I spent time with frail and elderly relatives, maybe the last time we'll ever have together. I hung out with my daughter, who no longer lives in the same city. I helped my dad on his small farm, watched my great-nephew's hilariously awful Little League games, listened to a friend's dark night of the soul, talked to strangers in strange cities.

I'm writing this on a train from London to Cornwall. Once there, I'll walk along the coast with a fellow writer and enjoy Quiz Night at their local pub. I'll probably bomb, since I can never keep all those royals straight. There may even be an outbreak of Morris dancing.

How could I turn down opportunities like those?

English Morris Men I
An outbreak of Morris dancing. It can strike anyone, anywhere, anytime.

 

This attitude applies to other financial goals, of course. Adjusting your expectations will help you pay cash for your next vehicle, save for a home, put your kids through college, or retire early. My mantra is “save where you can so you can spend where you want.” In other words, not insisting on the best of everything right now means you'll be able to get what really matters to you later on. Or even right now.

For me, that means travel. If I wanted, I could spend more: a real hotel, the best concert seats, the full-price theater tickets. No credit card debt for me, thanks. I carried a balance to pay for my divorce attorney. Never again. In addition, I'm paying for my own health insurance and retirement; I can't do that plus maintain an emergency fund if I spend too much in other areas.

Paying as I go
I'll probably spend more on this three-week trip than on all of last year's journeys combined. Just getting here cost me $835 ($611 for the ticket plus a startling $234 in fees and surcharges), and I don't have a free flop the way I do in cities where I have family or friends.

I can stay this long only because I live and spend cautiously while I'm at home — and also because I'm willing to reduce my expectations. I could have afforded one week, maybe, in a cheap London hotel, a concept as oxymoronic as “cheap Manhattan hotel.”

Instead, I'm doing three weeks in hostels in Cardiff and London as well as using other frugal hacks: wifi access at the library vs. paying about $8 a day at the hostel, free walking tours, travel on the Megabus, meals from hole-in-the-wall cafes or (more often) from supermarkets. These economies are letting me spend more on concerts, theater tickets, and side trips to places like Cornwall and Windsor.

My bunk
A typical room in a London hostel.

 

Rather than save for a whole year to make one big blowout of a trip, I'll live the frugal life and pay as I go, when I want to go. Making a sandwich in the room and hopping on the Megabus to Cardiff for about $10 round-trip sure beats overspending and then fretting about the credit-card bills that will follow me home.

Besides, overspending now would mean less travel during the rest of the year. I don't want to make that trade-off. I've already lined up a house-sitting job in Anchorage, hope to attend a couple of writing conferences in San Diego and New York, and want to visit my father and other relatives in New Jersey.

The trade-offs I will make: music without a sight line, crackers and cheese for lunch, a hostel bed without a private bath. Some of what I want — but now, when I want it, and without the stress of debt.

Reminder: Donna is talking about conscious spending. The fifteenth tenet of the Get Rich Slowly philosophy is you can have anything you want — but you can't have everything you want. It's important to choose the things that are most important to you to spend on; pinch pennies on everything else.

 

St. Martin-in-the-Fields photo by Robert Scarth. Morris dancing photo by Stephanie Watson. Hostel photo by Benjamin Ragheb.

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Derek
Derek
9 years ago

My wife and I dream of living a life like yours someday. We would love to explore the world and travel, even if we’d have to do it on a budget like you. The experience would be worth the cut-backs, wouldn’t you say?

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago
@Derek: I *would* say that. In fact, I’m saying it right now. Good luck to you and your wife in your future travels.
Elizabeth Harper @ giftsofthejourney
Elizabeth Harper @ giftsofthejourney
9 years ago

” I’m writing this on a train from London to Cornwall. Once there, I’ll walk along the coast with a fellow writer and enjoy Quiz Night at their local pub. I’ll probably bomb, since I can never keep all those royals straight.”

I have to brag a bit about you so your readers will know that you were part of our winning FIRST place team on quiz night during your visit to Cornwall.

We wouldn’t have done this without your help.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago
@Elizabeth: Aw, thanks. But I don’t know that I contributed THAT much, despite John’s protestations that there were “too many American questions” that night.
Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

And think of all the entertaining cultural experiences you’ve been getting in that hostel! (I encourage readers to check out surviving and thriving for the somewhat graphic details.)

My father is really big into hosteling too. He’s got a lifetime membership.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago
@Nicole: I’ve still got another one to write up — the 20something guy who came on to me, twice, in the hallway. And me sick as a dog PLUS old enough to be his mother. Eeewww. Details forthcoming.
Wayne Mates
Wayne Mates
9 years ago

This reminds me of a trip many years ago with a college friend traveling in Europe. To make our money last while in France, we would buy a big loaf of French bread and make it last all day. We also one night bought a rather long salami, sliced it up and used the slices as poker chips to pass the night away. We used our Eurorail pass to hop trains at night and used the night ride for sleep without having to pay for hotels. And yes, we had a great time seeing all the sights we wanted to… Read more »

Adrian
Adrian
9 years ago

Congratulations Donna for achieving this feat! It was not too long ago you spoke of the difficulties experieced of being a financially-challenged college student and the many other trials & tribulations of life, but all of that effort and patience during some of the most challenging of times has landed you in a position to live just as you desire. You learned invaluable skills & lessons first-hand that will serve and better your life, forever. This is not to diminish the fact that you have always lived purposefully during your life, which to me, is the essential essence of frugality.… Read more »

HollyP
HollyP
9 years ago

Wow! What a fabulous experience! Thank you for sharing your journey.

Tim @ Faith and Finance
Tim @ Faith and Finance
9 years ago

Donna, I read (and even write) about watching what you spend in the small things, but your post helped me to see it in a different light.

I love your mantra “save where you CAN so you can spend where you want.”

It’s easy to blow off a few dollars because, well, it’s just a “few dollars.”

Thanks for the encouragement.

mdd
mdd
9 years ago

This is great and makes so many important points. I get so tired of Americans making excuses for not traveling abroad even though many claim they want to. And when others travel abroad, like myself, so many people act like that person must have a giant trust fund. I wish that more people realized that it can be incredibly affordable to travel overseas, especially if you aren’t mindless in just signing up for expensive tourst and standard hotels and all the other expensive things that are not necessary to see a given country. I also wish that everyone would realize… Read more »

Adam
Adam
9 years ago

Price of a night in a London Hostel?: 30 quid.
Bringing home bed bugs with your luggage?: Priceless.

Tracey H
Tracey H
9 years ago

I loved this story! My husband and I spent a week in Paris in November and had fun buying wine from the local corner store and opening it with a shoe (you can find out how on Youtube), buying street food from vendors, other food at the grocery store (we love grocery shopping in foreign countries–it’s entertaining to see the different kinds of food available), taking the Batobus (a hop-on-hop-off boat for getting around), walking everywhere, and simply seeing everything we wanted (using a Museum pass) without spending a fortune. That’s the way we usually travel. A bit of research,… Read more »

Chickybeth
Chickybeth
9 years ago

Thanks for this post. I love to hear how people travel on the cheap (and not only to remote villages either!). Every time I travel, I spend too much and regret the spending later which detracts from the good memories of the travel itself.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago
@Adam: No bugs yet. And remember that plenty of hoity-toity hotels are infested with the li’l critters, too. Body parasites are not respecters of persons, or of postal codes.
Incidentally, I’m paying a lot less than 30 pounds per night.
Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago
@Tim: Thank you. As you well know, “just a few dollars” adds up pretty quickly to, well, more than a few dollars.
Adam
Adam
9 years ago

@Donna – sorry wasn’t trying to be b*tchy, just a bit of humour. I know that hoity toity hotels get bed bugs too! Especially New York. I do wonder if hostels are more likely to have them or not; I suspect they do (less money for pest control) but it could be they don’t! For me a great hotel can make or break a vacation (also I cannot share a bathroom with strangers, it’s a freakish thing about me), I just try to find great deals at nice hotels and stick to a budget I can afford without putting it… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

Nice story. I don’t want to travel right now, but back in the day when I backpacked I did use Work Your Way Around the World as a general guide to survival on the road. That, and the Lonely Planet guides, which always list hostels, cheap places to eat, etc. These days it’s probably all online. ps- cheese and crackers? eat some vegetables! 😛 — Re: bedbug paranoia (just read). Nobody has ever died of bedbugs. Yes, they are freaking gross, but so are mosquitoes and mosquitoes are way worse. Wash you stuff in hot water at regular intervals during… Read more »

Sandy @ yesiamcheap
Sandy @ yesiamcheap
9 years ago

Donna,

If you’re coming to New York I have a ton of ways for you to save money here as well. Sometimes I find that asking someone that lives in the city that you want to visit how to save money is the best. They know their city and the ways to see everything on a dime.

partgypsy
partgypsy
9 years ago

Did that while in college and loved it. Now that I’m older, have not very much time off and would probably be traveling with kids, I’d choose the trade off of shorter vacation, but more “comfort” and lack of hassle. PS If one is traveling in Europe (France, Italy) a good compromise between hostels and real hotels are either hotels which cater to other europeans (often called family hotels) in which you have your own bedroom but share a bathroom, or staying in people’s homes in which they rent a room (and often a bath) in their home for extra… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago
@El Nerdo: I only LOOK stupid. Of course I added vegetables and fruits to the diet. At one vegetable market when I wanted to buy one carrot, the guy refused to take my money.
And I agree: Bedbugs are kind of nasty but they used to be a fact of life. People got them, shrugged, did their best to get rid of them. Like roaches in some cities today.
retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

It’s tough to say no to a $6 upgrade, hats off to you Donna. We love frugal travel as well and try to stick with the hostels when we travel in developed countries. When we go to cheaper countries like China or Thailand, we upgrade a bit a go for nicer rooms.
I love your travel lifestyle and achieve that some day.

indio
indio
9 years ago

I enjoy traveling as much as the next person, but the proliferation of bedbugs has made me wary of certain hotels. Even though bedbugs can be found in high end hotels, hostels would be ideal vectors for transporting bedbugs and the bedding wouldn’t be as scrupulously cleaned.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago

@Indio: You may be right. But this is a risk that I (and a whole lot of people) are willing to take.
If I wound up with bedbugs from a high-end hotel I’d be irritated figuratively as well as literally, i.e., “You mean I paid $210 a night for bedbugs when I could have gotten them for only $19 at a hostel?” 😉

Michele
Michele
9 years ago

A person can purchase a sleep sack to avoid bed bugs. I backpacked around Europe for many, many months, staying in hostels. Had to stay in B&B’s in Italy since they don’t allow over 35 year olds in the hostels. Kept yogurt, cheese, granola, bread and instant coffee in my pack and cooked dinner in the evenings. Best time of my life!

Ginger
Ginger
9 years ago

For me the flights are the killer. It was the same price, when we priced out our honeymoon, to travel to Hawaii as it was to travel to Ireland. We ended up choosing Hawaii because living in buffalo I really miss the warmth :).
I think we will explore the east coast by car for a little while (we are from the west coast) before we fly again.

Mom of five
Mom of five
9 years ago

I always enjoy your posts, Donna. So practical. I doubt travel will ever be my passion, but I think it’s great that you’re able to do all what you want just by making small economies. Congratulations on living a wonderful life!

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

I’m just waiting for the post where someone’s passion, the thing they’re willing to scrimp on everything else so that they can afford, is a Range Rover. Or anything else but travel, really. Everyone wants to travel. That’s fine, just getting old. Surely there must be someone out there who wants to write but not travel.

It’d be fantastic to see someone write about not going to Europe so they could buy a luxury SUV, though. If for nothing else but the contrarian point of view.

Bree Zumoff-Mosley
Bree Zumoff-Mosley
9 years ago

Donna, I’ve been following your posts for a long time and I am so happy to see that you are able to travel now after all of your hard work! Thank you for your valuable lessons in frugality; you pop into my head often to remind me to be thrifty so that I can live richly. Enjoy England, you’ve earned it!

Leah
Leah
9 years ago

That’s exactly how I travel! Grocery store meals, hostel beds, etc . . . but all the kayaking, museums, and other adventures I want. I love it. My other trick for getting affordable meals is to see where the working folks go. Sure, I could pop into that cute cafe with the long line of tourists. Or I could follow the locals and eat a delicious meat pie for $2.50 NZ. A year and a half ago, my boyfriend and I went to NYC. With two of us (and a car), a cheap motel in Queens was smarter than a… Read more »

Afford-Anything.com
Afford-Anything.com
9 years ago

Hostels are a great way to save money, since accomodation is one of the most expensive parts about traveling.

I stayed in hostels — exactly like the kind pictured in your photo — across Europe: in Italy, Amsterdam, the Czech Republic, and Singapore (yeah, I know Singapore’s not in Europe, but it IS an expensive place for accomodation).

In other European countries, like Portugal, Germany and Spain, I met people and got free accomodation through Couchsurfing.com

Be creative!

Ana
Ana
9 years ago

Great post! When I was young and stupid (2 years ago…) I studied in Spain and went into some debt I’m still trying to pay off from traveling. Of course when we traveled, we stayed in hostels and ate as cheaply as possible. And some of the flights were super cheap (like 30 Euros round trip from Madrid to Lisbon, Portugal). But the sheer amount we did definitely did add up, as did all the money we spent on going out that semester! Overall, I wouldn’t give up any of the memories from that semester abroad, but I wish I… Read more »

sey
sey
9 years ago

If you want to get to know a few locals and stay for free, check couchsurfing out. It’s not for everyone, but many enjoy it greatly. (Though I often end up spending the same as in a hostel, for food etc, it’s a lot more enjoyable.)

http://www.couchsurfing.org

Pat S.
Pat S.
9 years ago

These are the most inspiring posts, because they prove that in the end, frugality and discipline doesn’t take away from enjoyment of things and experiences, but rather increases the enjoyment of the fruits of your labors.

krantcents
krantcents
9 years ago

Although I would travel differently, I envy your experiences. I love to travel and the memories of the people, food and sites are the most important. Try to get to Scotland, they will give you even more value. The people are even more wonderful!

Barb
Barb
9 years ago

Okay, granted its been a while since I hosteled in europe—–but when I did one brought their own sleep sack, pillow and pillow case. I am MUCH more comfy with that than with sheet that a hotel washed in I dont kow what manner.

Barb
Barb
9 years ago

PS Tyler, if it makes you feel better, my brother and sister in law are NOT going to Europe this year so that they can redo their kitchen, with the inclusion of a six burner stove that is combined gas and electric and has a grill on top of the stove……….Yes, in my family we like to cook and eat.

The Other Brian
The Other Brian
9 years ago

I agree with Tyler 100%. I’m pretty sure the person that wrote that post would get absolutely BLASTED in the comment section for their prioritization of Stuff over experiences (why do I have to capitalize Stuff but not Experiences???)

Debt Donkey
Debt Donkey
9 years ago

Such a well-written post! Your basic lesson is one I’m slowly learning, but I can see the rewards of it already. I hope to do some more traveling, too, and hearing how you make it possible by keeping to your budget and living in your means is very inspiring. Thanks!

Jane
Jane
9 years ago

Yes, I would love for someone to actually have the courage to write a reader story or guest post about how they scrimped and went without for a big screen television! Why is that any less valid than saving for a trip to Paris? I’m sure everyone would say that it is just as valid and cite J.D.’s mantra “Do what works for you.” But let’s be honest – there is a pretty obvious privileging on this site and others of certain types of ways to spend your money. Travel is one of the ones that people categorically praise. Arguably… Read more »

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago

For Tyler and Jane and The Other Brian, etc: I’ll happily publish a post about a person who has scrimped and saved for a flat-screen TV or a Range Rover or a surfboard. Nobody has given me such a post, though. Tyler, I’m sure you could give me one, and you know I’d be willing to run it. Nobody’s saying these other choices aren’t valid options; what you’re seeing is that for many people, Experiences have come to trump Stuff. For the record, I’ve written twice before about the things I spend my money on: What It’s Like in the… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

@41 JD and all… Donna Freedman has an excellent post on her site about the luxury cupcake experience. http://www.donnafreedman.com/2010/11/11/let-me-eat-cake/ p.s. The last big thing we saved up for was a year off work. It was awesome. DH reminds me that he saved up for a fancy Aeron chair and we got a gas grill too, both of which are quite nice. Oh, and we just dropped close to 2K on trees. Next up: private school tuition. Then a piano. And college tuition for a couple of relatives. In the mean time, money is going to retirement and mortgage. Most of… Read more »

Chris
Chris
9 years ago

Donna – this article got me thinking about trade-offs. I’d trade less travel for more comfortable accommodations and more eating out. I don’t need the luxury room and have used various strategies to get less expensive places to stay – a package plan that provides the transportation between cities, low cost hotels, and not much else in Italy; staying at the end of the blue line in an Italian neighborhood in Boston; but I need a ground level bed and no more than two people to a room (light sleeper). When I was as young as you are Donna, maybe… Read more »

William Bowen
William Bowen
9 years ago

I loved this story. It reminded me of the four months I spent backpacking around Europe after law school. I well remember weighing the various financial choices that came up day-to-day. My recommendation, choose events and outings with groups.

My favorite memories involved the friends I made in hostels and the spur of the moment plans we made. I also recommend hunting for student/same-day tickets. I was able to get a great seat at the Vienna Opera at a deep discount that way.

Jaime
Jaime
9 years ago

Donna-Congrats I think its awesome that you’re pursuing your life goals. Tyler-I like spending my money on both things and experiences. I don’t like the idea of spending money on just experiences. My dream car is a BMW and one day after I become an accountant I’ll buy it with money that I’ll save up. But I don’t think you’ll see many posts about that because people don’t want to be judged for a purchase like that. Many people will probably post that they’re being shallow, selfish, superficial, or anti-environmental. Affluent people avoid talking about such purchases because with human… Read more »

twiggers
twiggers
9 years ago

I really enjoy traveling and something strikes me. Whenever I mention that we are saving to do a 5* trip people react with “Well, you know you can stay in hostels and save money.” or “Rent an apartment.” Why do I need to do that?? I am going on a trip that is #1 on my travel bucket list (10 days in Rome + 7 day Med cruise + stopover in Madrid & London) and for 2 people it is costing about 12K (and airfare in first class was only $800 using FF miles). Could I cut back and not… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago

@ #43 Chris: Actually I’m not young. I’m 53 years old. Getting up to that second-floor bed a couple of times proved to be challenging. Here’s more on that: http://www.donnafreedman.com/2011/03/12/in-which-i-briefly-second-guess-the-hostel/ And I’m not saying everyone has to travel this way. I’m just saying what works for me. Re the hostel sheets: They came in every day from a commercial laundry, still hot from the press. And it seems to me that bringing your own sleep sack is not proof against infestation. All it takes is that the last person brought in a bug that then hitches a ride in your… Read more »

Squirrel Saver
Squirrel Saver
9 years ago

Staying in hostels ruins the experience of travel for me. I often find it nearly impossible to get a good nights rest with all the noise and many levels of discomfort, which in turns clouds my experiences with negative feelings that just ruins the vacation. Another frugal idea is to rent an apt from a landlord or a sub-letter. You can often stay in your very own apt for the same price as sharing a cramped room with many others.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

@45 Jaime– If you ever have time for an elective, take Public Finance (sometimes called Public Economics). After a couple of classes of economics a lot of people are convinced that there’s no need for government because the market always works. It doesn’t! There’s 5 different kinds of market failure, that result in the need for government intervention. (And almost every intervention results in unintended consequences.) A little economics can be a dangerous thing for citizens.

Bill
Bill
9 years ago

@ Tyler, Other Brian; I think part of the reason there aren’t as many posts about buying the latest internet capable, 3d, hd television with optional magic fingers and easy-bake oven attachments is because such a post would invariably be more about the saving process than the result. It is easier to write about how fulfilled you are from spending your hard-earned money on a week in Sri Lanka because you have a whole week’s worth of experiences in Sri Lanka to describe. With the purchse of a TV you’re basically limited to “I successfully negotiated with the guy at… Read more »

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