How I funded 26 months of travel: Saving hard & making money on the road
I won’t lie to you, I was lucky enough to earn a decent salary in my regular job before I left the UK for 2+ years in Latin America, and if I’d only been planning a 6-9 month stint of travelling I would have been able to get by with the savings of just that. But wanting to do this for longer, and having just got onto the property ladder, I wanted to be financially secure whilst away. Besides, I knew I wanted to experience work and travel at the same time to feel slightly more adult, so I started thinking about how to raise money for a trip, and how I could continue making money on the road.
So how did I get to the point of being able to continuously travel? Multiple streams of income (hello, buzzwords).
It’s a complete detriment to my progress as an adult human being that I always seem to have my head buried in some new, exciting way to ‘possibly’ make future cash, but if something doesn’t excite you, you won’t push it half as far. Some of my income streams were mere trickles, others had the potential to become rivers, but either way it was a good feeling while travelling knowing that my financial risk was spread. I left the UK with £9000 in savings, and without making money on the road I would have only lasted about 9 months; check out how much I spent in each country for the first part of my travels in my 6 months South America backpacking budget.
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To give you ideas to help you develop your own income sources before a big trip, here are my many, many money-making streams, split into raising money for a trip before you leave your home country, and then making money on the road:
How to raise money for a trip
Super-scrimpin’ at home
So not income per se, but knowing I’d be leaving my job for at least 6 months, the year leading up to the trip I SAVED LIKE A MADWOMAN. For the last 6 months I was putting more than half of my salary into savings. I appreciate this isn’t always possible for lots of people depending on your circumstances (privilege, I see you), but to put a figure on it, after I’d taken out all my savings, rent, bills, petrol and food expenses, I had around £3-400 to play with as disposable income for the month, which was more than enough. I stopped buying anything unnecessary – no clothes, no expensive cocktails, no luxurious foods (if a career in branding taught me anything, it’s that own-brand it usually just as good), no new photography gear, no huge nights out in London (ok, maybe one or two). I was never exactly a fashionista, but my wardrobe took a real turn for the worse. I found all this frugality difficult at first, but I really got into it, and by the time it came to leave, not spending on myself felt really natural.
Selling an apartment worth of shite
Oh my, the CLUTTER. When Andy and I packed up our flat, we didn’t realise how much ‘sentimental’ or ‘maybe I’ll need it one day and kick myself’ stuff we’ve been hoarding despite not even getting it out of a drawer since before uni. Watching a documentary on Netflix called Minimalists kinda changed how I see things – I wasn’t about to bin absolutely everything as I still needed to store a few winter and work outfits etc. for when I eventually returned, but I was pretty ruthless with what I threw out.
Four car boot sales in 2 weeks plus hours (maybe days?!) of uploading photos to Facebook Marketplace, local Buy & Sell FB groups, Gumtree, eBay and Shpock and then arranging pickups gave me a last-minute boost to my savings in the last 2 months. If you’re going to do this, prepare to let things go for cheap and start your selling early; nothing gets snapped up as quickly as you expect!
Getting rid of all our stuff (not including the car) probably earnt around £600-700 between us.
Let your money work for you! As I accumulated savings I realised there’s no point in putting them in a regular bank account to sit idly and potentially get hit by Brexit slumps. For this reason, I looked into medium-term investment options, like Premium Bonds (for those outside the UK, it’s a bit like a savings lottery where you can win higher amounts of interest than a guaranteed interest bank account) and investing in a long-term portfolio. Buying into bricks and mortar also made me feel more at ease than if I’d had entirely liquid assets when Brexit came into place. A sudden drop in Sterling whilst I was abroad could have affected me hugely. I also dabbled in Cryptocurrencies and made a 10x earnings in 2 weeks, sold my position, reinvested half and embarrassingly lost that half within a couple of days. Risky business!
How I continued making money on the road
Freelance brand consulting
As discussed in detail in the 7 tips to become a digital nomad ebook (subscribe to download it; it’s free!), Andy and I were able to turn our previous desk jobs into a remote business. This one was a pipedream, but upon telling our employers that we were planning on leaving, being able to experience work and travel became a tangible opportunity, so we ran with it. Consultancy often comes in peaks and troughs – there will be times branding companies just need extra brains, and it makes more sense for them to bring in freelancers of old than find and train new salaried employees. We just needed decent wifi, sometimes a co-working space and demand from a network of brand consultancies to make this happen. On average, we probably worked 2-3 weeks a quarter, which was more than enough to keep us going in Latin America.
Pitching on Upwork
As a brand strategy consultant, I was used to selling my skills rather than tangible products. Upwork can be quite a quick turnaround for small to medium projects that you can do from anywhere, so I picked up a couple of jobs here and there, and managed to get a few repeat clients. In my experience, the application process is still a bit of a scrappy game, and you often have to lower your hourly rate and promised deadline just to be considered, or end up working on ‘examples’ as part of the interview process and then never hear from them again. Compared to my brand consultancy day rates, I earn little more than peanuts for the hours I put into the whole process, but hey, remote freelance earnings feel pretty good in the end.
Shooting commercial & portrait photography
It’s been around 4 years since I picked up my first DSLR, and in truth I only got it because I wanted ‘higher resolution’ travel photos. Oh, how naïve I was! Now, I’ve got an unhealthy snapping obsession, and managed to get a few paid photography jobs here and there, such as a commission for Airbnb Magazine, but also some free stays at hotels in return for content. Portraits and family sessions are the most fun, but corporate shoots are the most lucrative by far, so I’ve been doing a mix of both to keep up with my ever-growing gear needs. Most people find me through my photography website, so if you are a photographer make sure your site is SEO-optimised for your next location as you travel. However, for hotels it’s typically me who approaches them with a proposal to negotiate.
Building a stock photography portfolio
This isn’t a cash cow. Sales of my photos are low value, but across multiple microstock sites such as Alamy and Shutterstock I get about 10-15 sales a week. HOWEVER, Shutterstock have this week lowered the commission they give to their artists by more than a third for my earning level, and I’m not seeing this revenue stream as being as good as it used to be in the future. Classic stock photos (‘professional ethnically diverse group look at laptop smiling in office environment‘ type stuff) tend to do better on these sites than travel shots, but I still get sales. As long as your photo quality is good and the subject is in demand, it can just become a numbers game, and whilst travelling I was able to build my portfolio almost every day. As passive income, once the photos are uploaded I don’t need to put any more effort into them to keep them making money on the road. My favourite kind of income stream.
Pimping out my grandparents on YouTube
You heard me. I’m still a little shell-shocked by it all, but in 2016 my YouTube channel (which had never had more than 1000 views on any one video over the 5 years I’d had it) suddenly blew up after I uploaded a few AncestryDNA videos with my grandparents. Collectively, they’re now well over the million views mark, which is both cool and terrifying. I did nothing to promote it, so it must have been shared on external sites as I experienced waves of views (and with it, literally thousands of nasty comments).
It really annoys me when YouTubers post click-bait videos entitled ‘How much I earn on YouTube’ and then skirt around a real figure, leaving you guessing, so I’ll just come out with it. 500k views of a very niche, product-related video earnt me around £2000 in Google Ads. There, now you all know how much your favourite YouTubers are ABSOLUTELY RAKING IT IN. I don’t attribute my YouTube success to anything but chance, but with a decent social media strategy you can really boost your earnings. It’s worth mentioning that YouTube recently changed their earnings model, so now you have to maintain something like 4,000 hours of annual watch-time and 1000 subscribers to even start getting ad revenue. Kinda sucks.
One word of caution: despite being a fairly light-hearted video with my grandparents, some of the comments I’ve received have been absolutely disgusting, and they aren’t for the faint-hearted. I’ve learnt to zone them out and actually find them quite funny since there’s barely anything I haven’t heard before now, but at first the horrendous put-downs, racially abusive comments and, most of all, insults hurled at my incredible grandparents, really got me down. Every now and then I get someone who leaves an absolutely beautiful comment that makes me grin ear-to-ear; the next time you’re left unsupervised on the internet, remember to be that person!
Taking part in market research
As someone who have used to work closely with Market Research suppliers, should I really be doing this? Mehhh probably not. We’ll call it a grey area… This is not a lucrative way of making money on the road, but it is easy money, and – more importantly – it’s something you can do on a beach if you can find a wifi connection. I only really did a few online surveys through prizerebel.com before I got bored, but if you can find openings for consumer focus groups via online panels, those will normally give you incentives of £40-60 for just a few of hours of your time.
I’m not sure whether to count this as a way to keep making money on the road or not. Even though the rental yield is very good vs a very manageable mortgage payment, most of the profit goes towards maintaining the flat for the tenants anyway (they cost £180 in property improvement requests on their first day), so I don’t view it as real money that I can use. You have to either have no mortgage or a large number of houses in your portfolio to make a lot of money out of being a landlord.
Now, you may think that travel blogging is an easy, surefire way to instantly start making money on the road, but lemme tell you, I didn’t start seeing 3-figure earnings for it until the month I came back to the UK (ironic, no?), plus the costs such as hosting a blog, can take a little while to earn back. If I’d have had my business head screwed on from the start and hadn’t just treated this as a passion project, I definitely could have pushed my blog harder and faster, but it really did start off as a creative outlet where I could centralise all the travel tips people were constantly asking me for (don’t stop, I love it!). If you’re determined from the beginning, travel blogging can get you making money on the road by having ads on your website, affiliate links in-content, brand partnership deals and more. You can also use it to promote some of your other revenue streams, such as YouTube and photography.
So, those are my many streams of income! Hopefully these help you brainstorm ideas for how to raise money for a trip and then continue making money on the road.
I think it’s worth noting that I was travelling for the most part with my ex-partner, Andy, so we did benefit from economies of scale in terms of private transport and private accommodation. We also made the effort to travel slowly for much of our time in Latin America, and that’s a great way to make your money stretch further (and give you time to set up a base if you do find work!).
In Costa Rica, we tried out Workaway as a way of volunteering in a hostel in exchange for free accommodation, which was a really fun way to experience work and travel. You do have to be careful when travelling on tourist visas in South America that you’re abiding by labour laws – digital nomad work that is entirely online is a total grey area and laws have not yet caught up with how to deal with it. Works for me!
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