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

Mary Kearl and familyMary Kearl and family.Courtesy of Mary Kearl

  • 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.

{{}}

View As: One Page Slides

Month 1: January 2019

Month 1: January 2019
Travel stats
  • Progress: 3 countries, 6 cities
  • Places visited: Greater San Salvador, El Salvador; Las Vegas, Nevada, US; and Cartagena, Santa Marta, Medellin, and Bogota, Colombia
Remote work stats
  • Active clients: 1
  • Hours worked per week: 4

In Colombia, we spent the least on food than in any other country in South America — about $19 per day — because we stayed in apartments with fully-equipped kitchens and ate two meals per day at home.

When we ate out, we found low-cost street food, like empanadas and arepas.

When we ate out, we found low-cost street food, like empanadas and arepas.

Month 2: February 2019

Month 2: February 2019
Travel stats
  • Progress: 3 countries, 7 cities
  • Places visited: Bogota, Colombia; Quito, Otavalo, Santa Cruz (Galapagos), Isabella (Galapagos), and San Cristobal (Galapagos), Ecuador; Lima, Peru
Remote work stats
  • Active clients: 2
  • Hours worked per week: 6

When preparing for Ecuador, we set two separate budgets — one for the mainland and one for the remote Galapagos islands made famous by Darwin, which locals refer to as a "lujo" (or "luxury") to visit. Our goal was to spend $150 a day on the islands and $90 a day on the mainland, but our averages crept up to $185 a day and $150 a day, respectively.

While still busy with the projects I received at the beginning of the year, I interviewed for and landed a US-based freelance writing gig all from the comfort and tranquility of a beautiful remote mountain retreat in Otavalo, Ecuador.

While still busy with the projects I received at the beginning of the year, I interviewed for and landed a US-based freelance writing gig all from the comfort and tranquility of a beautiful remote mountain retreat in Otavalo, Ecuador.

Month 3: March 2019

Month 3: March 2019
Travel stats
  • Progress: 4 countries; 12 cities
  • Places visited: Lima, Ollantaytambo, Aguas Caliente/Machu Picchu, Paracas, Huacachina, Cusco, Puno, and Islas Uros, Peru; New York City, NY, US; Greater San Salvador, El Salvador; Copacabana, Isla del Sol, and La Paz, Bolivia
Remote work stats
  • Active clients: 4
  • Hours worked per week: 14

March was the busiest month for gigs and travel. Because I was bringing in more income, we saw some of the pricier parts of Peru, including Machu Picchu, and spent $523 on a three-day tour of the Ica Desert, the Huacachina Oasis, and a private plane tour over the famous Nazca Lines, which can only be seen from the air and are believed to be 2,500 years old.

That new client I landed back in Ecuador had tons of writing assignments for the launch of a new website. Plus, I landed two additional clients, so I squeezed in work between travels and baby's naps.

That new client I landed back in Ecuador had tons of writing assignments for the launch of a new website. Plus, I landed two additional clients, so I squeezed in work between travels and baby's naps.

In transit between Copacabana, considered the cradle of Andean civilization, and La Paz, Bolivia, I worked over a meal while baby slept peacefully in this toddler travel tent.

In transit between Copacabana, considered the cradle of Andean civilization, and La Paz, Bolivia, I worked over a meal while baby slept peacefully in this toddler travel tent.

Month 4: April 2019

Month 4: April 2019
Travel stats
  • Progress: 4 countries; 9 cities
  • Places visited: La Paz, Sucre, Santa Cruz, and Samaipata, Bolivia; Asuncion and Ciudad del Este, Paraguay; the Iguazu Falls side of Brazil and Argentina; Manaus, Brazil
Remote work stats
  • Active clients: 2
  • Hours worked per week: 10

I originally calculated that Bolivia would be our lowest daily budget — estimating we'd spend $60 per day. However, because it was a lower-cost place, we invited our teenage niece, two nephews and my sister-in-law to join us during the kids' spring break. For eight days, we were spending for a family of seven and still managed to spend only about $150 a day.

The big expense of this month was paying $320 for US tourist visas for Paraguay for me and our baby (my husband didn't have to pay because he's a dual citizen and used his El Salvador passport to enter for free). That major one-time expense is the reason our daily average was so high ($172 a day) — subtract that, and our average would be about $92 per day, similar to other countries.

Still, we loved our high-rise apartment overlooking the National Palace (the equivalent of the White House) in Asuncion, where we saw them roll out the red carpet for a state ceremony. Using our travel binoculars, we could make out the president, security staged on the roof and in all corners of the property, and a getaway helicopter.

Our studio apartment made working while baby slept challenging, so I took calls and interviews in the hallway and even up on the rooftop deck.

Our studio apartment made working while baby slept challenging, so I took calls and interviews in the hallway and even up on the rooftop deck.

At the end of the month, I picked up one new client and wrapped things up with two others, and work slowed to 10 hours a week.

At the end of the month, I picked up one new client and wrapped things up with two others, and work slowed to 10 hours a week.

That was just as well, as the last week of the month involved spending 18 hours on a bus (national protests shut down traffic in Paraguay) and visiting the breathtaking Iguazu Falls on both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides.

That was just as well, as the last week of the month involved spending 18 hours on a bus (national protests shut down traffic in Paraguay) and visiting the breathtaking Iguazu Falls on both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides.

Month 5: May 2019

Month 5: May 2019
Travel stats
  • Progress: 3 countries; 7 cities
  • Places visited: Manaus, the Amazon Jungle, Salvador, Rio, and Sao Paulo, Brazil; Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Buenos Aires, Argentina
Remote work stats
  • Active clients: 3
  • Hours worked per week: 5

I picked up one new freelance writing client and my husband, who is a tourism and hospitality professional, began remotely managing a rental property on Airbnb and other booking sites.

Our biggest splurge (and savings) of the month was on a three-day, two-night Amazon jungle tour — one of the highlights of our whole trip because of how immersed we became, almost completely off the grid — which we found online for $1,020. Thanks to asking around at tour agencies in person, we paid 230% less at $302.

Our biggest splurge (and savings) of the month was on a three-day, two-night Amazon jungle tour — one of the highlights of our whole trip because of how immersed we became, almost completely off the grid — which we found online for $1,020. Thanks to asking around at tour agencies in person, we paid 230% less at $302.

Month 6: June 2019

Month 6: June 2019
Travel stats
  • Progress: 3 countries, 11 cities
  • Places visited: Buenos Aires, Ushuaia, El Calafate, El Chalten, Puerto Blest, Bariloche, and Mendoza, Argentina; Colonia and Montevideo, Uruguay; Puerto Natales and Puerto Varas, Chile
Remote work stats
  • Active clients: 4
  • Hours worked per week: 12 hours

Uruguay was one of the countries where we spent the least on attractions ($0 a day) because we spent so much time sightseeing outside, as we did in Colonia — a beautiful place to catch the sunset, where locals gather for a half hour or more to appreciate the priceless (and free) view.

By now I learned that some of the best freelancing gigs were to be found in Facebook networking groups, as opposed to traditional job sites like LinkedIn or Indeed. My new client came via a Facebook posting from early May — I applied that same day, and followed up not once but twice. By June, I found myself busy with the kind of assignments I could do on my own schedule without any calls — best for my unpredictable schedule and Wi-Fi.

Month 7: July 2019

Month 7: July 2019
Travel stats
  • Progress: 4 countries; 5 cities
  • Places visited: Mendoza, Argentina; Valparaiso and Santiago, Chile; Greater San Salvador, El Salvador; and New York City, NY, US
Remote work stats
  • Active clients: 2
  • Hours worked per week: 5

I've heard July is notoriously slow for freelancers, which was true and just as well for me. Winter had arrived and we were losing daylight and energy — sleeping in about 59 different beds over six months was catching up.

I had ambitions of reaching the remote Easter Island, but the thought of spending about $1,000 and six hours to fly there made me refocus my goal on appreciating the highlights we saw, including the extremes of urban Valparaiso and majestic Torres del Paine.

Where to next?

Where to next?

The big question from our friends, family, and ourselves is: Now that we have more or less broken even from working part-time remotely while traveling, will we keep traveling or settle down? For now, the answer is yes and yes.

The next chapter will involve finding a place to call home, while having the confidence to pick (and pack) up and continue our working and traveling lives the next time we get the urge to see more of the world once again.

A graduate of NYU with a BA in journalism and Baruch College Zicklin School of Business with an MBA in marketing, Mary Kearl is a professional writer and digital marketer with over 11 years of experience. She's written for AOL, Forbes, HuffPost, Target, Zillow, and many other publications, websites, and brands. As a digital and social marketer, she's worked for Adobe, the New York City Marathon, and other startups and small businesses. Follow her remote work/travel life on Instagram @SeetheWorldParents. Learn more on her website and feel free to connect on Twitter @marykearl and LinkedIn.

Add Comment()
Comments ()
X
Sort By:
Be the first one to comment.
We have sent you a verification email. This comment will be published once verification is done.