Monday, July 6, 2009

Save and travel even in an economic Shit-Storm

So I asked my dad near the end of the first semester to loan me a bit of money so I could eat something other than ramen noodles and I get a lecture on financial responsibility. Hmmm I am the last child of six and my older brothers used to call me After-thought. I remind him that had he “planned” everything he would have planned his kid might ask for money at the end of his first semester in college. He said the lack of planning was mom’s fault and anyway who was I to complain about my conception.

So I reluctantly made friends with ramen noodles.

Funny thing though… I took his advice and the next year, on only loan and scholarship money and a bit of creativity I managed to spend 35% less and use it for a vacation in Central America. I will tell you how you can do it too.

The Conventional Wisdom

These are the no brainers that you just have to get up and do if you can.
1) If you have debts consolidate them and negotiate for the lowest interest rates possible. Interest rates are at an all time low now.

2) If you have credit cards hide them. Don’t let anything plastic distract you. Even many student discount cards lead you into thinking you are getting the best deals. Better than using cards is to write down what you need first, from the grocery store to weekend fun. Then don’t let anything, from air miles to a discount on something you don’t need, distract you.

3) If you have excess cash (savings or student loan money you don’t need at the moment) then:

a) Estimate your living expenses. (You can use
b) Deposit your living expense money into the highest interest bearing account with no penalties for low balances.
c) Purchase a 90-day CD with your excess money.
d) Repeat each quarter and watch your money grow.
e) Save

I know, I know – if you had excess cash for a CD you would not be reading this and consolidating debt doesn’t mean you magically have enough for a vacation – the quickest way to a vacation unfortunately is using credit. But I had no excess cash. I saved and still went out and did things. Here’s how:

Make a Budget to get you to your goal and then set monthly and weekly targets to save:

1) Pre-buy

For food this means buy bulk. It may sound crazy but pre-buy your ramen noodles, Mac and Cheese and peanut butter as well. But don’t wait until you’ve gone over budget to eat them. Mix them in with the healthy food like whole grain rice and fresh veggies which are always cheap. Never go out to eat after the bars. When you are drunk Mac and Cheese is as good as pizza. Pre-buy the Tupperware too so you can take leftovers for lunch and while you are comparing prices make a note of where to buy those other necessities you want fresh like coffee.

Coffee is one of the no brainers at the top of every list to save money and I saved a whopping $200 dollars in four months here. I bought a coffee maker that had the coffee ready for me in the morning and I limited my coffee to one a day. I kept a nice Caffeine buzz going with tea I bought in bulk and when everybody went to Starbucks I just asked them to get me hot water. You will need to get over the feeling of looking cheap. When I explained what I was saving for, my Starbucks friends respected me all the more and happily got me hot water for my tea. Saving for a cool goal is far different from being cheap.

2) Pre-buy busyness too.

If you don’t have access to a free gym like I did, then shop around. There is nothing worse than blowing your budget and then having nothing to do. One night I had $10 left in my weekly budget. My friends were all going out to dinner and then to see a band that had a $5 cover. So when they were buying pre-dinner cocktails I worked out in the gym. When they ordered appetizers I lay in the sauna and imagined I was on a beach and after dessert as they were forking over $50 each to cover the bill and tip I was showering at home with the stereo blasting Radiohead downloaded free and having a Meister Brau. (Exercise caution and discipline if you buy alcohol in bulk) O.K. lame you think but I made it to the best part of evening and still contributed to a pitcher of beer.

Courses are also good things to pre-buy to keep you away from expensive things. Want to go to Central or South America? Take Spanish or Salsa lessons. Me? I took a cooking course, which you’ll see later, paid for itself five times over while I was travelling.

If you already have an expensive hobby, substitute it. Or if you can’t, then match the amount you spend on your hobby with your savings. After all travel is going to be your new number one hobby right?

OK, Meister Brau? Tea? Cooking classes? You think I became soft – dare you say effeminate – to save money. For those I only offer you this photo of Isabella and Lynette from Panama.

3) Make technology your friend

Are you still not using Skype or VOIP for your long distance calls? Do you still pay for cable and internet when a search of ‘free tv online’ gets everything you want on demand? (If you want to watch on the TV screen ask around electronic stores for a ‘TV out’ of ‘S’ cable.) Do you still have old compact disks you don’t listen to that you can sell at the thrift shop or crap under your parent’s bed that you can sell on Craigslist or eBay? You download your music now, right? You have energy saving light bulbs right? Good. Just checking.

4) Bank your Free Money

Everything you earn that you didn’t budget for is free money and goes directly into the untouchable account. Five dollars for your birthday from Grandma, is five dollars from grandma to travel. And tell her that. She probably only gave you five bucks because she thinks you’ll spend it on booze. A raise? Same thing.

As a student I still found free money. Gone may be the days you can give blood for money (in most places) but I donated sperm once every three months for $50. I participated in a market research project three afternoons for $40 each just to drink beer and comment on beer commercials. (You didn’t know your two favorite hobbies could pay did you?) If your city has a university with a medical faculty then check out the poster boards and have a look at the business faculty for market research opportunities.

5) Form alliances

Networking tools are now endless. Blog your aspirations, use Facebook to form groups or if you are a student check out what clubs already exist through your student’s union or the international center. Also use Facebook to add friends from the country you want to travel to.

Three groups that were the deciding factor for reaching my goals were:

a) My cooking class
b) My college International Center
c) The student’s union poker club

First these groups kept me out of the bars – some of the time at least. In my cooking class I met more girls than the bar, but in the poker club I could still have a few beers – store bought – not beers from $8 beer night in the bar. I also cooked a whole lot more than the previous year and saved a load on food.

Second, these groups actually helped me earn money. The poker club let me host tournaments. I fed them with roast garlic in oil and bread that was a huge hit and cost me next to nothing. In return to hosting and feeding I took a ten percent rake from the tournament which paid for my ante and I even won a few times.

I ended up hosting some kind of party every weekend. If it wasn’t poker it was a potluck with the cooking class. When the cooking class finished I invited some of the students from the International Center (who are always looking for new friends) for movie nights and cooking demonstrations. A Thai girl showed us who to make Tum Yum Kun and showed us pictures of the temples and her family in Thailand. After, the leftovers stayed at my place and made it into Tupperware for my lunches.

My Goal

I wanted to go to Costa Rica.

(Check or
$ 475
Costa Rica Daily Average
(Use to estimate)
50 (a day) x 30 days= $ 1500
$ 1970

Behind Budget

Two weeks to go and I was behind budget.

Savings over the previous year

(Bringing my own saved me $2.50 a day)
(Bought used books and resold them with class notes)
(Went out less, drank at parties I hosted and ok ok I smuggled booze into the bar with a zip-lock freezer bag)
Home Cooking


(Damn could only do it once every three months)
New Total

Short by $770

Here is what I did:

1) Asked Mom and Dad

I know, I know, how could I write about budgeting when I asked mom and dad had to come and bail me out?

I submitted to my dad my entire budget to show our organized and directed I was -- how I was not in the bars, how I spent more time studying and in the gym and that I would practice my Spanish in Costa Rica.

Good luck – didn’t work for me.

2) Birthday part and auction:

I invited EVERYONE to my birthday party, told the people in my cooking class I didn’t want gifts and to bring food I could sell. I made Hurricane punch with cheap booze (no one knew) and auctioned off my stuff.

Food and Booze
(Barely covered costs)
My used clothes for auction
Pre-sold two cartons of smokes and two bottles of liquor

The idea of pre-selling came up from one of my guests from the International Center. Smokes are way cheaper in Costa Rica and so is alcohol – take the money and bring stuff back for your friends. Then the girl from the English Center said, “Why go to Costa Rica when Panama is like a fraction of the price.”

Adjust your Goal

I gave up the idea of Costa Rica and did some research for Panama. Not only is the country cheaper all rough I found a flight form New York City for $260 and I had enough saved right there just by switching destinations. Like Magic. But that’s not all. Here’s how I came back with extra money.

Volunteering in Panama

Evenings of salsa dancers swaying in the glowing nightlife of a vibrant city, hot days on white sand beaches and cool nights by the fire in the cloud forest waiting for the wild animals of the jungle to appear – this is Panama…

Here is a run down on average costs:


A beer in the supermarket 50-55 cents
In a bar in the country around 50 cents
City bar normally $2, but can go to $3
A bottle of national rum(Ron Abuelo) around $6 in a supermarket
around $40-$50 in a nightclub
A bottle of national alcohol(Seco) less than $3 in a supermarket
around $40-$50 in a nightclub
Long distance busesTaxis Around $1.50 per hourWorks on a zone system, most places in the city will cost the same fare.Most fares should never cost more than $2, but be reasonable.$1.25 for one person 25 cents
Going out
Entry to clubs $5-$10 depending on the club
Basic meal $2-$5
Medium priced meal $5-$10
Expensive meal How much do you want to pay?

Cigarettes- Marlboro $1.75 in a supermarket

Volunteering was a super idea. The Aussie owner of one of the best hostels in Panama City, Mamallenas, let me put the skills I learned from my cooking class and I hosted family style dinners and charged. I found an amazing cloud forest eco-resort called The Lost and Found, where I did the same… hosted family dinners and volunteered to stay for free. I took care of a honey bear they rescued and did about a half days work in exchange for free accommodation. I couldn’t leave the place and in the two weeks there and between cooking and volunteering I spent next to nothing. I had enough for Scuba diving in the incredible coral in Bocas Del Toro.

When I landed tanned and relaxed in New York City I had $300 in my savings account. Next year? Monte Carlo!

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