Deciding on priorities and making small changes can add up to the trip of a lifetime
I was recently chatting with a friend who loves travel as much as I do. The topic du jour – how to afford travel as life gets more expensive. We both have children and live in the U.S. where healthcare and college are very costly. And my dream holiday is a trip to Africa. If I ever want my Out of Africa dreams to come true, I need to save a significant amount of money.
In theory, I should know how to save for a goal. Early in my career, I often wrote about personal finance as a business journalist. Of course, we don’t always practice what we preach, and there’s room for improvement in my budgeting and savings habits. What follows is a list of ideas: some are already habits, and some are new ideas I’m trying.
Deciding on Priorities
From what I’ve learned, success in saving for anything, a home, a car, or a vacation, begins with getting clear on what matters to us. I know that meaningful travel experiences bring joy to my life in a way that other “things” do not. Yet I’m still tempted to buy new shoes, or go out for dinner.
But I am newly committed to save for my dream holiday to Africa, so I have to find things to forgo. We are all different; what doesn’t matter to me (facials) is someone else’s favorite thing.
So we don’t have to give up all the fun in our everyday life to afford to travel. But we need to prioritize our expenses. Once we do that, we can take the little steps every day, week, and month that add up to big savings. Savings that will get us to our midlife dreams – whatever and wherever they are.
How to Afford Travel
Step 1 - Travel Dream
We know that my dream is a trip to Africa. Now it’s your turn. Rather than abstractly thinking, “I would love to travel somewhere exotic,” your assignment is to explore some specific places where you might want to go.
If you’ve already decided on a destination, fantastic. If you don’t have somewhere in mind, make a cup of tea and flip through some travel magazines. Or explore some travel websites – I really like AFAR. Start looking for places that intrigue you; try and imagine yourself somewhere you might never have considered.
Once you have your place, get a hold of a photo of it. Tear it out of a travel magazine or print it from a website and tape it up somewhere that you will see it often.
I like to put photos up next to my bathroom mirror. Seeing a photo of my dream holiday each morning, reminds me that the actions I take today will move me closer to that reality.
Step 2 - Research the Cost of your Dream Holiday
Once we’ve picked our destinations we need an idea of what our dream trip will cost. This requires a little more research. Checking the cost of organized group tours can be helpful; you will find that costs will vary greatly depending on the destination, length of trip and class of accommodation. My story on Travel Tours for Women lists the prices for every tour.
A good travel agent can also give you information about costs. You aren’t committing to booking a specific trip yet, just gathering info.
Once you have estimates for the main components of the trip, add in the other elements: an approximate cost for your flight, travel insurance, and vaccinations (if required).
Then budget for other spending that wouldn’t be included in your travel “package” such as extra excursions, meals and alcohol.
Don’t worry if you don’t have an exact number; this is about getting started. You can fine-tune later, as you know more about your travel plans
We have an approximate budget for our dream holiday, and let’s say it’s $5000. We want to calculate a monthly savings goal. If I hope to travel in 18 months my monthly goal is around $280. I’ll round that up to $300 a month to give myself a little buffer.
Step 3 - Redirect Money to Travel Savings
Ideally, we will set up a designated bank account for our travel savings and make sure there are no fees or minimal fees. Giving it a specific name “Travel”, “Africa” or “Greek Island Sailing”, is another reminder this money has a special purpose.
Now let’s start building our travel fund.
Eating In & Dining Out
I am starting with this one because I think it has the biggest potential for savings. Do you ever dine out? Silly question, I know: who wants to cook every night?
Eating out is a huge treat and I love it as much as anyone. But it is very expensive. And it’s not just the special dinners. Do you order pizza every Friday? Pick up a $5 latte a few times a week? It all adds up; the average American spends $3000 a year dining out.
So this is the question I ask myself when I am tempted to order dinner instead of cook: would I rather order in Thai food or enjoy it in Thailand, on vacation?
The joy I get from dinner out to my local restaurant is fleeting; I like it a lot at the time and barely remember it a few days later. But I will never forget eating escargots in Paris, at Le Grand Café Capucines, one of the oldest seafood restaurants in the city.
I know that grocery shopping and meal prep is very time consuming; I used to joke it was my part-time job. So let’s enlist some help. If you have older kids, could they pitch in on dinner duty? I have assigned my teen sons each a night to make dinner. Knowing how to cook is a great life skill.
Even buying prepared or semi-prepared meals at the grocery store is cheaper than restaurants or takeout. A roast chicken is $7, a pre-washed container of salad greens is $4, and a few russet potatoes for baking is $3. It’s possible to feed a family of 4 for $15. Even fast food will cost you triple that. I find that planning the meals for the week ahead helps prevent my family from ordering in spontaneously.
I think there is a lot of potential for savings when we add up what we spend on food and drinks each month, other than groceries. If we can cut that in half we can save hundreds and possibly thousands of dollars every year? That’s a great boost to our travel fund.
Potential monthly savings $100 +
Clothing & Shoes
Science has now proven what we ladies already knew: shopping makes us feel good. It lights up the pleasure centers of the brain. The problem is that little mood boost is short-lived.
Have you ever added up what you spend on clothes and shoes in a year? I started tracking my annual spending and gave myself an annual budget. As long as I stuck to it, I enjoyed buying something new, instead of feeling guilty about it. This is still a work in progress for me, but I am improving.
Shopping sabbaticals can also be great re-sets: refraining from new purchases for two or three months can mean a couple of hundred dollars to kick-start a travel savings fund. And if we are planning a special holiday, we will probably want to buy a few things for the trip.
Potential monthly savings $35 +
Exercise is so important for midlife women so I will always say let’s prioritize our health and fitness. But can we save some money by switching a $70 a month fitness or yoga studio to a less expensive annual membership somewhere?
Like many people, I gave up my gym membership due to the pandemic. I bought an exercise bike for $400, a one-time expense that I hope will save me money in the longer term. I now do a “free” routine with exercise bands and weights at home. I miss going to the gym but this is working well for now, and saving me money because I’m not taking any expensive classes.
For any of you thinking: “I love my pricey exercise classes, back off lady,” I say, fantastic! If you are in a fitness groove that works for you, don’t mess with it. That is your priority and there are other places to save.
Potential monthly savings $50 +
A study conducted by OnePoll for Groupon found the average woman spends $313 per month on her appearance, or $3756 per year. I’ve never tracked what I spend, other than my hair, but I think there is huge potential for savings here.
The most common “beauty” expense for the women polled was facials, and they cost $50 on average. I don’t get facials. If you do, have you considered home facials? Or what about alternating home treatments with your professional treatments? If you did that every other month it could save $300 a year.
Potential monthly savings $50
One of my favourite new ways to save money on skincare and makeup is to shop for products at my local natural foods store. It is far less expensive than department store beauty counters and in some cases even traditional drugstores. And the products don’t contain the harmful ingredients I am trying to avoid.
On the subject of clean beauty, one of my favourite and very affordable skincare companies is The Ordinary. Their products are widely available online and are free of parabens, sulphates, mercury, oxybenzone and other harmful chemicals. And most importantly, since we are saving for travel, they are affordable. I switched from a face serum that cost $40 to The Ordinary’s Buffet Serum which costs $15.
I estimate that I now save about $30 a month with the changes I’ve made to more affordable serums, moisturizers and cleansers.
Potential monthly savings $30 +
I’ve never spent a lot of money on my nails but know that even occasional manis and pedis add up. I started doing my own nails. I ordered some nail care products from Olive & June and like their non-toxic polishes. Check out their online mani bootcamp for tips: Olive & June. It’s all about home manis/pedis around here these days and extra money in the savings jar. Now, going to the nail salon is an occasional splurge.
Potential monthly savings $35 +
Confession time: my hair is my great big savings fail. I get salon highlights in my dark blonde hair and they are very expensive. I’ve tried to do it myself, I’ve tried cheaper salons. That was a time I was grateful for my hat collection. I haven’t figured out how to spend less and get a result I am happy with so I’ve given up trying.
I hate spending so much money on my hair, but professional hair colour is one of the things I splurge on.
What I have changed, however, is my haircuts. My hair stylist is great, and expensive. I now mix up the pricey haircuts with a cheap $15 trim at Supercuts. I ask them to only cut the length, not the layers.
More Ways to Save for Your Dream Holiday
Honey - Easy Online Coupon Savings
One more way I have recently saved considerable money is with a free online coupon service called Honey. It’s an extension which you add to your internet browser. Once added, every time you are making an online purchase Honey will automatically search for and apply relevant coupons.
There isn’t always an available coupon, but about half the time I get 10% – 15% off, and I’ve had as much as 40% off from Honey coupons. Just don’t let all your clever couponing trick you into unnecessary shopping.
With Netflix, Amazon Prime and all the other digital viewing options, do you still need cable?
Potential monthly savings $60 -$100
If you still have a landline, do you need one? Once everyone in my family had a cell phone, it was like the landline didn’t exist. Does anyone else hear the phone ringing?! I got tired of answering the phone and checking messages. So we no longer have a landline and I am no longer the family secretary. Win. Win.
Potential monthly savings $40 +
Time-of-use pricing is becoming widely offered by energy companies and gives us the chance to save money on our electricity bill. By running the dishwasher or clothes dryer at off-peak times, we are charged a lower rate for the electricity.
In some places those lower rates are applied automatically. In others, such as Denver where I live, you have to opt-in for time-of-use pricing. Now that we have done that, we save the most money by running appliances between 9 pm and 9 am. Every time I put a load of laundry in the dryer at 10 pm, I think of mountain gorillas and smile. Call your energy company for more information.
Potential monthly savings $25 +
Do you use your local library? In many places it’s become so convenient to borrow digital books, audiobooks, and magazines from a public library using apps. We love the Libby app available in the U.S. and Canada. It’s well designed, simple to use and connects seamlessly to a Kindle.
I am not suggesting we never buy books, I think it’s important to support writers and authors, but the library is a great way to cut back on the cost of books and magazine subscription.
Potential monthly savings $25 +
I clean my own house and that saves a lot of money. Do I enjoy it – no. And my house may not be as pristine as I would like. But I can live with that.
I am not going to tell you to clean your own house; I say bravo if you have help. I am just telling you what I do. I’ve gotten used to it and the savings boost my travel fund and help pay for my expensive hair colour. And please call ahead if you are coming to visit me.
Potential monthly savings $150 +
One of the most significant ways that I am saving money to afford travel is I don’t have monthly car payments. I have an older car and it is paid off. The average lease payment in the U.S. is around $450 a month, that’s $5400 a year, also known as a really nice trip to Europe.
When I feel envious of someone’s lovely new car, I remind myself that I want to see the world. Can you put off buying a new car and redirect that money for travel? Or could it make sense to change from an expensive monthly lease to the purchase of a used car? Once you pay it off, you might so love having more money for travel that you too will be boasting about your old car.
Potential monthly savings $100 + (more longer term)
How to Afford Travel - one more idea
Renogotiate Your Salary
I find this topic really interesting and would like to do a deep dive on it at some point. As women we are not always good at asking for what we deserve. Statistics show men are better than women at asking for raises. And they tend to negotiate their salary more effectively when they take a new job.
If this is something that is of interest to you, check out: A Woman’s Guide to Salary Negotiation, in the New York Times. Or if you feel you need some additional help with career advancement, I recommend an organization called BossedUp. There are also many resources and books on this topic; many of them likely available from your local library.
I don’t know about you but I am newly inspired to save for my dream holiday to Africa. Even if we picked a third of these savings suggestions, I think we could probably hit a $200-$300 savings goal each month.
Ultimately though, this is about more than travel. Deciding how we spend and save our money is about empowering ourselves, and aligning our actions with our priorities.
And I am pretty sure that missing out on a facial, a manicure or a grande latte will feel entirely worth it when we are enjoying the view of the mediterranean from a hike on the coast of Italy, or photographing elephants from a safari jeep.
We will be living our life exactly as we have designed it. Let’s raise a glass to that… and admire our pretty home manicures.