Sticking to a travel budget is hard. I get it.
I’ve been traveling around the world for the past eight months, and my spending is hovering around $54/day including flights, insurance, travel, food, housing, souvenirs, fun, etc. But it’s been tough to stay on budget. And even that number could be a lot better.
Travel is supposed to be about having fun, relaxing with friends, chasing exciting experiences, and letting go of stress—not watching your wallet. But thanks to a weird quirk of human behavior, even so-called “budget destination” in SE Asia, South America, or even Eastern Europe can cost you a fortune if you’re not careful.
Whatever your budget, comparing the price of things to what they cost back home can be a slippery slope that leads to overspending, overconsumption, and debt. And it seems that no one is immune to the age-old allure of incredible deals in foreign lands.
‘It’s way cheaper than back home’
Tell me if this sounds familiar:
You walk past dozens of stands at the local night market. You pause to laugh at a few cliche souvenirs and horrendous knock-offs wondering how anyone buys this stuff. Then you see it.
It looks a lot like that one thing you wanted to buy back home—you know the one. The expensive one you could never quite justify buying. You’ll just go over to see how much it costs. You’re not actually going to buy it. I mean, it’s a knock-off. It won’t be as good, right?
Then you remember that your money goes a lot further here. Plus, you’re leaving in two days. You don’t want to just waste the cash in your wallet. They tell you the price. You open up XE on your phone and run the numbers. Woah. That’s a steal. It would be practically criminal not to at least look at it.
Maybe you should save some money and buy it now. That’s how money works, right? Spend to save. Heck—you’re on vacation. You can afford to treat yourself.
After a few minutes of deliberation and some less than effective bargaining you part with a handful of brightly colored bills with too many zeros on them and leave with your newest souvenir. Maybe you should get a bubble tea and see if there are any more sweet deals around here…
Most of us travelers have had some version of that travel shopping experience.
Whether it’s clothing, a new bag, hiking gear, jewelry, or local hand-made goods, it’s easy to justify overspending when you come across something that seems like a “bargain” compared to what you’d pay for a similar item back home—even if you’d never buy that same item in their daily lives.
And overspending on travel isn’t limited to physical souvenirs.
The rising cost of FOMO
Millennials are famous for spending money on “experiences” instead of material objects. Heck, we’re proud of our minimalism and thrift and not being weighed down by material possessions, man.
But what happens when those “once-in-a-lifetime” trips start to become everyday purchases?
Maybe that above shopping scenario doesn’t apply to you. You’d never waste your money on a knock-off leather jacket. But maybe you like to knock back a few artisanal cocktails and enjoy “affordable” 4-star meals at rooftop bars with a 360-degree view. When in Rome, right?
Or maybe like most younger travelers, you’re a sucker for a good (expensive) off-the-grid adventure eco-tour.
Everyone has their vices, and traveling is a great excuse to indulge these expensive habits.
For many people, a vacation is all about relaxing and/or experiencing new things, but the price of overspending on experiences and other consumable goods like lavish meals and over the top accommodation are steadily eating into more and more travelers’ budgets.
One 2017 survey of 1,000 adults found that “74% of Americans admitted to falling into more than $1,100 of debt after returning from vacation.”
If you have to go into debt to get away from it all, maybe it’s time to evaluate what you’re getting away from back home.
The point is, overspending isn’t just limited to tchotchkes and souvenirs. If you’re not careful your travel budget can get out of control—even if you’re a minimalist.
The easiest way to stick to your travel budget
So how do you avoid getting sucked into overspending on souvenirs and experiences? The answer is so easy that it’s almost insulting.
You have to track your spending. Every purchase. Every day.
That’s it. That’s the secret to budget travel—a spreadsheet or app to track your spending. It’s not sexy, but the answer to overspending is simply accountability—even if it’s just to yourself.
It’s too easy to get lost in new currencies, credit card swipes, and the ridiculous “deals” you’ll find at every new destination. We’re hardwired to look for deals, and vendors at popular destinations are more than ready to take advantage of our hunger for bargains.
Heck, I’ve fallen for it. I had a three-piece suit made for a fraction of what it would have cost back home when I traveled through Vietnam ten years ago.
Sure, I didn’t have a job at the time, let alone a reason to wear a suit, but how could I pass up such a bargain? Funnily enough, I did actually wear that suit a few times over the years, but I actually had to buy another suit when I got back home for a funeral because my custom suit was a little…over the top.
Trail Wallet: Easy to use travel budget tracker
To curb my suit-buying ways I started tracking my expenses. For a while, I used a custom Google Spreadsheet, but it wasn’t always easy to figure out all the formulas and cells. Like I said, I don’t wear a suit to work.
Luckily, a few months ago a new travel friend recommended Trail Wallet to track my daily spending, and I absolutely love it.
It’s easy to enter new expenses (you just hit the plus button) and the category menu is customizable and easy to edit later if things change. The pie graph visual layout actually gives me useful information about my travel spending including daily spend by category and projected spend for my whole trip.
For instance, I can see at a glance that I’ve spent $13 a day on housing over the past eight months and just $10.90 on dining out. Not bad. The pie graph also lets me know when a certain kind of spending—like alcohol or souvenirs—gets higher than I’d like.
Trail Wallet tracks my total daily spend ($54.32 as of right now) and features endless currencies and real-time conversions to my home currency so I don’t have to do a bunch of math.
The free version only lets you enter 25 items, so you have to pay $4.99 for the full version if you’re going to actually use it, but I’ve been surprised by how well this simple tracking app curbs overspending and encourages me to keep costs low.
The hidden cost of novelty
Travel suspends our concept of what’s normal. Heck, that’s we travel in the first place, right? But that shifting perspective also means that your grasp of value shifts every time you encounter a new currency and a new destination.
It takes time to understand new places. That’s why tourists get scammed so easily. Researching the price of things ahead of time is a great way to get a sense of how much things should cost, but you can’t account for everything.
Plus, most tour companies either don’t list their prices or charge 10x what you’ll pay for an excursion if you book online vs. in person so it’s tough to get an accurate reading on the price.
There’s power in data. When you track your spending as you travel—especially credit card purchases—you spend less. Moreover, something strange happens when we see our expenses laid out in front of us.
Watching my total spend steadily tick up triggers a warning that I need to chill on luxuries for a few days. Conversely, watching my per day spend go down feels amazing.
Like most things with human behavior, the simple act of observing and tracking something has a direct impact on our actions. I know someone is watching my spending—even if that someone is just me—and it makes me a little more frugal.
Maximizing your trip and your budget
You don’t have to go all out just because you’re on holiday. YOLO and FOMO are just marketing slogans designed to get you to do things you don’t want to do.
If you want to travel for longer, lighter, and (in my humble opinion) better, keep an eye on your daily travel expenses. It’ll help you avoid the souvenirs you don’t need and find alternatives to the overpriced (and crowded) “experiences” that everyone else is taking.
Hope that helps. Have fun out there.