We’re nerdy – nay, prudent! – enough people that we would not embark on this trip without a budget and cost tracking plan. We’re diligent about both, and tracking our spend has proved helpful in decision-making. Who needs maps when we have spreadsheets?
Thanks to Chris, a Google Docs gift from God, we’re meticulously tracking our spend via several carefully formatted spreadsheets. These sheets help us track daily costs, account for exchange rates, reflect spending in both USD and in the currency where the spend took place, and calculate averages by day, month, spending category and country.
As I mentioned in our 3-Month Round Up, we’re spending an average of $58/day for the two of us, or $1700/month. We’ve maintained this average through to our 4-month milestone. The $58/day covers ALL expenses for both of us including accommodations, transportation, food, water, alcohol, toiletries, laundry, visas, tours, what little shopping we’ve done and even small offerings made at temples or donated to organizations. Our biggest expense has been airfare from Hanoi to Singapore, on Tiger Airlines, at $363.94 for two tickets – this is the only time we’ve flown since our initial flight out of Seattle. It’s difficult to say what our smallest expense has been; there have been so many meals, drinks, tuk tuk rides, metro tickets and souvenirs which have cost less than $1 USD.
We’re spending equally on getting to places (transportation) as we are on eating once we get to those places (food!) – roughly $12/day. My favorite meal also happens to be the most affordable: roti canai telur, fried flat bread w/ egg and dahl (for dipping) for 3 ringgit, or $0.85 USD, in Malaysia. We had roti and milk tea almost every day while in Kuala Lumpur, the Cameron Highlands and in Penang – so delicious! Prices for food depend on city, country, whether we’re eating street food or in a restaurant and so on, but it’s been easy to maintain a fairly steady average no matter where we are. And, not to fret – we’re not starving or eating only instant noodles (though Mama Noodles in Thailand makes a fantastic guilty pleasure!); since fresh food is readily available and affordable, we’re eating healthfully and well. We often order a fourth meal….dessert!
For a place to rest our heads each night, we’re spending $13.80/night on average (which equals $414/month, comparable to my rent in 2005 when I was sharing a Greenlake townhouse with Courtney and Amy). Our most affordable stay was $6.06/night in Pak Beng, Laos, a one night layover during our 2-day slow boat journey to Luang Prabang. Our most expensive accommodations was in Bangkok, where we paid $61/night for a hotel room.
Nine percent of our spend is going to alcohol/treats, or essentially anything we consider bad for us like soda, Ritz crackers, Pocky, popsicles and, of course, whiskey and beer. We’re actively working to bring this number down and more or less gave up alcohol in Malaysia completely. Luckily for us, Malaysia doesn’t have much of a drinking culture, so it was much easier to just drink milk tea. 🙂
So far, we’ve spent the least per day in Malaysia by about 20% lower than our overall average. We attribute the lower spend to drinking less and doing fewer tours in Malaysia as compared to other countries. (Our travel in Cambodia was chock full of tour and entry fees to Angkor Wat, Tuol Sleng prison and the Choeung Ek killing fields; in Thailand, we paid for a half-day cooking class, a 7-day boxing course and a 1-day tour within the outskirts of Chiang Rai; in Vietnam, we had our 3-day cruise along Ha Long Bay and a 1-day tour of the mighty Mekong delta.) We spent the most per day in Singapore, at $230.50/day, the majority of cost attributed to airfare. We also spent 23 days in Malaysia vs two days in Singapore, so we were able to amortize large costs over a longer period of time in Malaysia.
Cost Comparison – Apples to Mangoes
It’s challenging to do an apples-to-apples comparison of expenses in Southeast Asia versus expenses in Seattle. Our traveling life is quite different from our rooted life. In Southeast Asia, we’re hermit crabs: we find shelter as we go; we live out of our trusty, 30- and 40-lb green backpacks; and, we eat out for almost every meal. Our big-ticket spending is on transportation and tours. Our most valuable belongings are passports, wedding rings, computers and cameras; if we lost the rest of our packs, we’d be no worse for the wear, everything’s easily replaceable and affordable.
In Seattle, we have a great home with lots of space and things, a garden, hop vines, homemade keezer and smoker, a BBQ, rain barrel – all the makings of a typical young urban hippie (yuppie!) couple living in the Pacific Northwest. We also have a mortgage, utility bills, a beloved, fuel-efficient (alas beat-up) car, a motorcycle, health/home/vehicle insurance, gym memberships and monthly services including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Comcast. In addition to a mortgage, our rooted life living expenses included: $200-$240/month on groceries, $80/month on gas, $150-$200/month on utility bills; $80/month on Internet, just to name a few. After saving, and though we curbed our spending significantly in the past few years, much of our disposable income was going toward eating out, travel, shopping and entertainment (i.e. Sounders games, mani/pedis, happy hour, concerts/shows and, of course, Kona Kitchen). We neither lived too lavishly nor did we skimp in Seattle; we lived frugally, comfortably and prioritized our spend based on experiences and things important to us.
All that said, it’s quite safe to say that we spend a significant amount more living in Seattle than we do traveling around SE Asia.
(Of course, we’re bringing in less income right now. And, many of our rooted life expenses still exist; but, we’ve found ways to offset them. We’re renting out our house, tenants covering utility bills. We put holds on our gym memberships, Netflix and Hulu account; we canceled Amazon Prime and Comcast completely. We attempted to rent our car via FlightCar, but those guys don’t know a reliable work of fuel-efficient artistry when it honks in their garage!)
Quality of Life
Our quality of life traveling and rooted are equal, just different. There are benefits and trade-offs to both. We neither skimp nor glut either way when it comes to spending. If anything, SE Asia living is so much more affordable that it’s easier to live a little larger than we typically would. Money stretches further. (Should we stay in an uber posh hotel suite with a kitchenette and direct access to the pool for $20/night? Sure, why not – what’s $20 bucks compared to the $250 that the same suite would cost in Hawaii?) When everything is so much cheaper than we’re used to, it’s easy to rationalize spending money any which way, another reason why daily cost tracking is so important – it grounds us, reigns in our impulse buying, keeps us in check with our budget.
Another example of how money stretches is how we’re spending our current week in Koh Lanta, Thailand. Chris and I are in Koh Lanta for nine days taking a Muay Thai course. For $50/person, we get seven classes (each about 90 minutes long), plus unlimited access to the gym which has free weights, machines, stationary bikes, punching bags and, oh, the occasional half-masticated lizard and frog on the floor, thanks to two pet shih-tzus who rule the resort. We each have our own trainer, so we’re essentially getting private lessons. At 24 Hour Fitness in Seattle, we paid $35/person for a monthly gym membership. On top of that, I was paying $80/session for a 50-minute personal training session. I burned $50 worth of training after 31 minutes and 15 seconds!!!! (WUT!?) Though we consider $50 a big ticket spend for us in our “entertainment” category, the value we’re getting is so worthwhile. And, of course, the cost of getting to beat each other up every day in the ring? Priceless.
Time and Resources
All expenses aside, the greater investment for us is time. Time is a commodity, a negotiated benefit, a finite asset. We love traveling and are making it a priority for the next few months. We’ve met many other people – older, younger, our age – traveling the way we are, for long stretches of time and with an open travel plan. We’ve also met people vacationing within the confines of their time off from work – quick blitzes to SE Asia for a relaxing, sometimes rushed few weeks to see a new city or country, specific itineraries, return flights. A few nights in one town, a few nights in another before the long trip home. While we’ve done those types of trips many times before – and will inevitably do so again – we’re investing in long-term travel time now. And, so far, the investment has been worth it!