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Our family of 3 traveled the world for 7 months and only spent $288.30 from our savings - here's how

Our family of 3 traveled the world for 7 months and only spent $288.30 from our savings - here's how

Mary Kearl and family

Courtesy of Mary Kearl

Mary Kearl and family.

  • In 2019, Mary Kearl and her husband left their full-time jobs to travel throughout the US and Central and South America with their one-year-old child.
  • They had saved up and expected to spend $36,000 on their trip, but because they worked while they travelled they only ended up spending $288.30 of their savings.
  • Kearl walked Business Insider through her seven months across the globe, including how they prepared to go abroad and how she managed to make money through freelance work.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

At the start of 2019, my husband and I left our full-time jobs - where our combined annual income was over $150,000 a year - moved out of our one-bedroom apartment in Marina del Rey, CA, and packed two carry-on sized suitcases, a backpack, and our one-year-old's diaper bag to travel throughout the US and Central and South America.

Over seven months, we visited 12 countries and 48 destinations, traveled 17,020 miles, and took 30 flights (and dozens of boats, trains, and buses) - and only spent $288.30 of our savings, even though we'd set aside and expected to spend $36,000. That's because between the two of us, we managed to make almost as much as we spent, about $35,000.

Now we're in our eighth month of living out of suitcases, and we've slowed down - we're back in the states while my husband is renovating my family's vacation home in Maine. No longer having to pay for our accommodations, we're actually in the positive, having earned more than what we spent on our travels.

How did we manage this? By setting and (mostly) sticking to a budget, finding remote freelance work (averaging six hours a week), signing up for a foreign-transaction-fee-free travel rewards card, walking an average of 10,000 steps a day - often replacing paid transportation - taking long-distance buses instead of planes, filtering water instead of buying it, doing laundry by hand, dining in, and eating out where the locals frequent, among other penny-stretching strategies. And it has helped that our baby's flights, accommodations, and fares for excursions and attractions have almost always been free.

The full-time remote working life is a goal for many - being able to set your own schedule, get the job done from anywhere in the world, and sightsee after hours. Others may aspire to become social media travel influencers and get paid to post from all over the globe.

Neither was our dream or reality. I didn't plan on working. Instead, I had the luck of receiving a sizeable project from an existing client right before we left the US, and that gave me the courage to grow my freelance list from one client to 14 throughout our travels in the areas I specialize in: writing, social media, and marketing. Each remote freelance situation has been unique - some have paid me per writing assignment, while others paid me monthly retainers for a specific scope of marketing or social media work.

Saving for and calculating our world travel budget: How accurate were we?

How we saved for this trip is a longer story, but in short, over the course of two years, my husband and I set and stuck to a monthly savings goal, adding to our travel fund each month and keeping daily expenses down by rarely eating out, living in a one-car household (a rarity in LA) and one-bedroom apartment, and biking to work (and most other places) every day.

To come up with our $36,000 budget, we consulted travel blogs and Budget Your Trip, which provides the average daily cost per "budget," "mid-range," and "luxury" traveler.

Since we didn't plan to stay in shared accommodations or hitchhike like backpackers might, we figured we should double the mid-range estimate. Looking back, we should have factored our child as at least one-fourth or one-half of one adult's daily costs. For example, for Peru, Budget Your Trip estimates one person on a mid-range budget will spend $46 per day, whereas our daily spend was $106. The cost of diapers, wipes, and whole milk added up.

What we actually spent while traveling

After six months of travel in South America, our average daily spend came to around $110. Broken down by category, it looked like this:

  • Accommodations: $40
  • Food: $29
  • Short-distance transportation (cabs, local public transportation, etc.): $13
  • Attractions: $20
  • Other: $8

While traveling in El Salvador and the US, we've mostly stayed for free with family and friends, borrowed cars, and cooked meals at home, bringing our daily budget down to $30 to $50, depending on the amount of sight-seeing and longer-distance travel.

Of course, our average daily costs only tell half the story. Planes, trains, and long bus rides added up to about $14,000, including some unusual detours, like flying to the US to help my mom after an unplanned surgery and to Cabo for a friend's bachelorette. If I were to do this again, figuring out how to cut back on longer-distance travel costs would be my main priority. The final category of spending we budgeted for was monthly recurring costs: travel health insurance and our two phone bills, which added up to about $200 per month.