The Strategic Retreat

See the world on one Chipotle a day

World from an airplane

Americans don’t travel. At least not outside of North America. About 1/3rd of Americans own a passport, 15 years ago that was 1/6th. Did we really change that much in 15 years where travel is now twice as popular? No. No we did not. The number of passports has increased dramatically but most of that isn’t due to travel outside of North America.

The biggest single reason for the increase is that Americans now need a passport to travel to Canada, Mexico and The Caribbean. Out of the 1/3rd of Americans who are legally allowed to leave the country, less than half have ever left the continent. That’s more than 80% of Americans who have never crossed an ocean, no wonder we have such a skewed world view.

There’s plenty of reasons for not leaving The NAU. The U.S. is vast compared to The EU, we have a common language, great national parks and varied geography. You could spend a lifetime exploring new places just in the contiguous 48, especially if you only have 2 weeks a year to do it. But, I think travel outside one’s country is important and should be prioritized. Isolating one’s self from the other 95% of the world isn’t a healthy way of living. People start to believe weird and crazy things when they block out others and surround themselves with only the like-minded. Like the fanatic on Facebook who unfriends anyone who questions their weird extreme left/right-wing blog-spam posts, such are the American people. On the left wing hand, I think people will be more empathetic of non-Americans once they meet them and observe their cultures and ways of life. On the right wing hand, I think Americans will be less fearful of China if they observe what a clusterfuck it really is.

One reason people often give for not traveling is money. I’m here today to say, you’re wrong. You can indeed afford to travel. You’re just bad with budgeting and don’t want to make living an amazing life a priority. I can hear the retorts now, “You don’t know my life”. And, that’s true. I don’t know the specifics of the individual crystalline pattern of your snowflake, but I do know enough about thermodynamics to make generalizations and your uniqueness is far less significant than your overall known properties. Outliers aside, if you’re an American you can afford to travel*. Here’s how.


The Chipotle Principle

I often think of the price of things in terms of food and travel. For recurring daily costs I think in terms of food, for their yearly equivalent I think in terms of travel. On my scale, one Chipotle roughly equals one Thailand. You may not eat Chipotle, and whilst that’s crazy and unadvised, you can use whatever base unit you please; I hear Big Macs are popular amongst economists. In-N-Out is a delicious thing to cut out of your life. You could not get a bottle of wine when you go out with your significant other. I can’t tell you what to prioritize but I can say there’s something in your life that you’re wasting money on.

My friends on a world tour

A Chipotle burrito doesn’t sound like it would equal a Thailand trip to many people but I assure you, it does. The price of Chipotle varies a bit, city to city with the biggest difference being sales tax. For me, in the here and now, one Chipotle cost just a bit under $10. That’s not exactly a cheap fast food lunch but it’s only $10, not that big of a deal. Or, it wouldn’t be if it were a one-off cost. But when looking at it as a daily expense that’s $3,650 a year. If you forgo the guacamole and only eat on work days that’s still $1,875 each year. That’s more than enough money to take a 2 week vacation to Thailand.

The key to being poor and traveling is twofold. 1. Eliminate a recurring expense from your life. 2. Travel frugally.

It’s that simple.

Vietnam snack motorcycle

Eliminate an Expense

In personal finance it’s often the leaks rather than the floods that do us in. It’s the $5 here and the $10 there, rather than the $500 tv or the $200 pair of shoes. Any and all reoccurring expense should be examined and, if possible, eliminated. Things like cigarettes, alcohol, subscriptions, lottery and fast food should all be considered for elimination. Basically, if you do something white-trashy; it’s keeping you from seeing the world and living a richer life.

Your Chipotle doesn’t have to be a Chipotle, it can be that pack a day habit or those 2 beers a day after work. Even cutting out $5 a week in lottery tickets can get you a weekend in Portland. Cutting cable or switching to a dumb phone can get you to central America. The key is balance, I’m not saying never have a burrito; that would be insane. I’m saying that you do something that you probably shouldn’t, on a regular basis, that is preventing you from doing other things. By eliminating or lessening that thing you will save money and also probably gain some ancillary life benefits.

I know what it’s like to be poor and it sucks and it can be overwhelming and depressing. If you’re already scrapping by on a few dollars a day I probably seem like a smug asshole. But the fact is, few people are operating at 100% economic efficiency and few people don’t have unneeded reoccurring spending. By replacing that expense with travel you also gain a new hobby, the hobby of planning your next trip and learning about the place you’re going. It’s like dreaming about the lottery, except it’s real.

Chiang Mai Dog

Travel frugally

There are two sides to having enough money to travel; the saving up by eliminating small expenses and the cost of the actual trip. Many people overestimate how much travel costs. One main reason for this is because they spend money poorly or are too prissy to step outside their comfort zone without being fanned with palm fronds. If the only way you know to travel and vacate is to be pampered and treated above your station then maybe you can’t actually afford to travel. But if you want to see new places and people and can go 2 weeks without being a drama queen, travel is not all that expensive.

buddha in ayutthaya

I’m using Thailand as a specific example but many many places are affordable. I happen to think that Thailand is a great training-wheels country. It’s cheap, it’s safe, the people act friendly, there’s an established tourism industry, you can get-by only knowing English, yet it’s different enough from the U.S. that you’ll know you’re not in Kansas anymore.

The main expense in a Thai vacation will be airfare. Due to this and the length of the flight I recommend going for at least 2 weeks. Not everyone in the U.S. gets vacation time, and I understand that but 2 weeks is a fairly standard amount and most Americans can swing that every year if they don’t fritter away their days-off elsewhere. A round-trip flight in April from SFO to BKK can be had for under $1,000, under $900 if you’re willing to leave on a Thursday. Even at the low-end cost of one Chipotle-a-day($1,875) that leaves you with $875 for two weeks in Thailand, more than enough. Delicious meals can be had for $1 each, accommodations for $15(as low as $1 or $2 if you’re not fancy) a night. And bus or train rides will take you half the length of the country for $30. Hell, you can get from Bangkok to Ayutthaya for 50 cents. I’ll provide exact costs and suggestion in a later post specific to Thailand travel but trust me when I say; you can have the time of your life in Thailand with $875.

$1 for 3

The year after that you can see Central or South America, the next; New Zealand, you may need to save up your burritos for 2 years to properly see Europe or Africa but then you can also save up your vacation days and give them a proper 4 weeks.

Or, you can waste a few extra dollars a day on food that’s bad for you and not go anywhere or see anything, your call.

The only thing keeping you from being a world traveler is that pack a day you’re smoking or that daily vanilla latte. Cutting out something small, with a plan and a purpose, can change your entire life.*

*Unless you have kids. Then your life sucks and you can’t do anything fun. Life just be that way.

About Jeff

Jeff was born in the back of a War Game Store on the day the first Star Trek movie came out, to a computer programmer mother and a father who wrote the story for Dragon's Lair. Jeff has an MBA, a CSM, and a penchant for sticking his nose where it doesn't belong.