In 2013, our family of six embarked on an epic journey.
For one year, we lived nomadically, wandering from continent to continent, country to country, exploring, adventuring, learning, seeking, bonding, delighting and relishing in the daily discoveries that travel can bring. It was a phenomenal year, one that we dreamed of and prepared for long in advance.
When we speak with people about our travels now that we’ve we returned home, they usually ask three things:
- How many countries did you go to? (Answer – 30)
- Which one was your favorite? (Answer—this is impossible, it depends on which day you ask us)
- HOW on earth did you do it?
(The 4th question would probably be “WHY on earth did you do it?” which is a post in and of itself, but this might help to answer that a little.)
There is no short and simple answer to how we were able to traverse the globe, for one year, and visit 30 countries with four children aged 8 and under.
This post is simply an overview, an introduction to how we did it. Each one of these points could be its own blog post or better yet, a book chapter, and maybe it will be one day.
But I’m going to attempt to break it down anyways, to show how a mostly normal family (I’ll confess, we’re quirky), without an inheritance from a rich aunt, without winning the lottery, without having jobs that pay extravagantly, was able to do something so unbelievable.
We’re not really special. We just really wanted it.
And I’m not naïve enough to believe the childhood cliché that we can all do or be absolutely anything we want. Circumstances in our individual lives do have an impact on how our lives play out. I totally get that, in so many ways, we have been wildly blessed.
But life is also a series of choices, and the best part is that we get to direct our path, set our own course, and live according to the dreams and passions that have been put inside of us.
Image from The Art of Simple (and if you like this post, you would probably love her book, Notes From a Blue Bike, and the fact that their family is planning an adventure likes ours).
This was our dream and this is how we made it happen.
1. We had no debt.
This is the first prerequisite. Getting out of debt early on in our marriage (and then staying out of debt) was the first key to having freedom for anything else.
2. We got rid of ALL our expenses at home.
Our big idea was that if we could eliminate all expenses back home, we would essentially spend the year living on our savings and whatever we could earn while traveling. If we could travel and live inexpensively enough, then theoretically we could keep going so long as we were bringing in an income.
So we gave up our house. Sold our car. Had multiple garage sales to help fund our trip gear purchases. Closed everything down except for necessary bank accounts and life insurance, and kept our remaining stuff stored in the garage we continued to rent cheaply because it housed the office for our music school.
3. We saved up. Big time.
Our primary savings goals before we went were 1) to have all our plane ticket money saved (though not all flights bought ahead of time), 2) to pay for my husband’s Antarctica trip, 3) to buy all of our trip gear (high quality backpacks, suitable clothing and shoes, electronics for work and homeschool on the road, etc.) and 4) to save up enough to pay for our first two months of travel expenses, just as a precaution.
Clearly, these kinds of savings take years. We made our firm “yes, we’re absolutely doing this” decision to go only 14 months before our first flight lifted off (though we had been contemplating a year abroad for a couple years before that), so we didn’t save up that much money in such a short period of time. We had been saving (though we didn’t know what for) a long time before this decision was made.
Which leads me to #4…
4. To save up, we intentionally lived beneath our means for a long time.
For about 7 years, ever since we had paid off my university debt and gotten onto steadier financial footing, we had lived as frugal zealots.
Even as my husband’s career gradually took off and he began to make a more livable income than the rice-and-beans budget we lived on in our early, meager years, we barely increased our standard of living. We weren’t sure if we were saving for a house down payment, for some kind of financial investment, or something else altogether. We just knew that saving made sense and we didn’t see the need to buy more or nicer stuff than what we had.
In retrospect, those years of making wise, conscientious choices with our slowly growing income were a determining factor (perhaps one of THE biggest factors) in making this dream a reality in a relatively short period of time.
5. We became entrepreneurs.
If living beneath our means was the spark that lit the fire with our already mounting savings, this was the slow-burning wood that truly fueled the fire and sustained our trip.
Being an entrepreneur is no easy or small thing. It is a lifestyle. It is thrilling and grinding and toiling and sweating and risking and wrestling and dreaming and working with all of your might until you can’t work anymore. We would recommend it, and the freedom that it brings, to anyone, but we cannot advise it lightly.
It has been one of the most rewarding decisions of our lives, but there is a great cost involved.
The tenacity it takes to not only dream big dreams, but work long and hard enough to see those dreams through to fruition, hour after hour, day after day, week after exhausting week, is what brings success in business. Not secrets of online success or fancy strategies or get-rich quick schemes. Just hard work, plain and simple.
It’s so important to note that nothing in life is guaranteed. You never know if your ideas will succeed or completely flop, regardless of how tirelessly you work. We have had numerous failures ourselves (dismal ones at times), as well as successes. But we’ve come to see that with great risk comes even great reward, and so we embrace both the failures and the success as best we can.
6. We worked our tails off.
Did I just cover this clearly enough? We didn’t stick up a website, launch a music school, put in a month or two of good efforts, and sit back to watch our bank accounts fill up, while we packed our bags and researched the best time of day to view the Taj Mahal.
We worked harder and longer than almost anyone we know, for more than 5 years, so that we could get to a relatively stable place of steady income from our businesses. I’m just talking moderate, steady, full-time job income. Nothing earth shattering, but enough to live on and sock away in savings while continuing our modest lifestyle.
7. And then, we worked some more.
When we got there, we didn’t stop. We continued to work and tweak and refine and improve our businesses. We had earned ourselves enough of a buffer to not physically kill ourselves as we did in those early, hard years, but still.
To this day, even though our businesses are becoming more mature and established, when things need to be done, when we launch a new project or product, when we dream a new dream… we go straight back to the grind and do whatever it takes.
8. We worked while we traveled.
This is the clincher. If we could live debt free, on a modest income, save like Scrooge, and keep toiling away, that got us close, but not all the way.
Achieving location independence while continuing to run and work at our businesses is how we actually freed ourselves up to take off for 54 weeks at once (and for those interested in this concept, I highly recommend reading the 4 Hour Work Week– while we don’t agree with 100% of what he says, there is so much good stuff in there to learn and glean from).
(One other thing that’s important to note is that we could have done this trip only on our savings and music school income. Running a web business is not necessarily a prerequisite. We would have burned up all our savings, and needed to cut our expenses (see point #9 below…), but it would have been feasible.)
Much as we would have loved to stop working for a year (and many families that travel for an extended period of time do find ways to do this and I could explore it in another post), it really wasn’t a possibility for us.
We cut back on some of our day-to-day tasks, partly due to the logistical necessity of different time zones, being 30,000 feet in the air with no means of communication, spending time in developing countries or regions that lacked infrastructure or practicalities like power that didn’t go out twice a day. We also hired more team members, delegated and increased their responsibilities, and a couple times we took off days or weeks where we could be truly offline and on “vacation”.
But we never stopped running our businesses from afar. When people would refer to our travels as a one-year holiday, we laughed. Hard. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.
It also needs to be stated that we walked into this year with our eyes wide open to the possibility that our businesses could fall apart in the process. We carefully, painstakingly, evaluated the potential risks of this trip, what it could cost us financially (every bit of savings we had, failed businesses, having to start over completely). We counted the potential costs and risks against the potential gain and benefit, and we found the risk to be worthwhile, but that didn’t diminish the fact that those risks were a very real possibility.
We found Wi-Fi everywhere we could (thank you Starbucks and McDonald’s for going global– wait, did I actually just thank McD’s???), I wrote posts on airplanes and trains and scribbled inspired thoughts in journals I kept in my backpack. Ryan had conference calls over sketchy internet in Africa and answered emails over breakfast in Turkey. We stayed up late in one-room rental apartments hoping the glow of our laptops didn’t wake our sleeping children. I did podcast interviews in cold hotel rooms in China and noisy coffee shops in Australia, and at one point, Ryan even traveled back home for two weeks to check in on our music school and take care of things that needed to be done.
You can hear me chatting in a recent podcast with Kat of How They Blog a bit about what this looked like for us, the chaos of working while traveling. Or hear me in that noisy coffee shop in Australia, talking with Tsh of The Art of Simple all about our big trip.
9. We got really creative with our work.
We could have done our year cheaper. There was some choice involved.
We wouldn’t have gone to as many countries, and might have skipped out on a few activities (Antarctica for Ryan, our Kenyan safari, etc). We could have stayed put longer and traveled around less within countries with a large landmass which made travel expensive (like China or Argentina or Australia).
But once we were on the road and already doing it, we realized we would rather find some creative ways to earn more money in order to really maximize our trip. We had already come so far and put so much effort in to make it a reality, we didn’t want to regret what we didn’t do. We found a way to make it happen.
So we poured ourselves into a new business venture that had shown itself successful, joined together with a new partner, and put on two huge events during our year abroad. That business is called Ultimate Bundles, where we create and sell these enormous, awesomely helpful eBook bundles, with a sky-high value and a really low price, together with 100+ other bloggers.
Was this hard to pull off while traveling, with four young children, even in developing countries? (Our 2nd sale launched the day after we said good-bye to 5 weeks in eastern Africa– internet was a beast as we were frantically preparing for the sale).
You bet it was. But it allowed us to continue to do what we couldn’t have done otherwise, so we made the sacrifice and (you guessed it) worked really hard to make it happen.
10. We did our best to anticipate our monthly expenses in different locations, to ensure that our income could match up with our projected expenses.
This is a toughie, I’ll confess. We looked up the cost of living in countries we were thinking of visiting. We researched costs of travel, read umpteen books and websites and travel forums, and made some preliminary guesstimate budgets based on what we found.
It’s difficult to predict all your expenses, especially when your trip spans a year and so many different countries. I simply ran out of time to do all of the research I wanted to do. If you think of how much time and effort it takes to plan a 2 week road trip in your own country, you can imagine how much time it takes to plan 54 weeks of travel, in 30 countries you’ve never been to, in different languages and currencies, on a tight budget, while preparing your businesses for your departure and packing up your home.
Hindsight is 20/20. Many costs exceeded what we had anticipated and budgeted for, and that was sometimes hard to deal with. We learned a LOT and I’ll have to eventually write how, if I were doing this all over again, I would predict travel costs and prepare a preliminary budget much more accurately. I think it can be done and I’ve learned some of the tools for doing it (experience is a great teacher, huh?).
So that’s how we did it. How we achieved our dream of trekking around the globe with our kids.
There are a few things I want you to walk away with (and some things I hope you don’t take away).
1. Don’t compare yourself to other people. There’s always someone more successful or faster at achieving a goal than you are. We see people do far better in business than we do and know that what we’ve done is still small peanuts. For some people, the path is longer, it looks different.
2. Some times things just work (and others don’t), and we never know quite how something will go until we try it. We’ve had a lot of flops, for sure and we just count those attempts as lessons learned, pick ourselves up and try again.
3. We don’t consider ourselves particularly special or smart. There are an awful lot of better business people out there. Now, stubborn, persistent, dogged, driven… sure, you could apply those terms to us. But don’t put us on a pedestal. We didn’t do anything beyond the reach of anyone else willing to hustle and run hard after their dreams.
4. The way we did this is NOT meant to be exemplary for anyone else. This shouldn’t read like a how-to (beyond some of the basics, like not having debt and saving up). This is really just the way that we did it, what worked for our family. There are a million different ways to work towards being location independent, traveling or living overseas with your family, being able to tent-make while serving or doing missions work, etc. A million ways.
One last thing to mention is that this is only half of the story. We had to make and save the money to go, yes. But on the flip side, we had to find ways to live and travel in a manner that was affordable and sustainable for such a long trip.
That’s part two. It’s coming, I promise. There are so many ways to travel smart and keep your expenses low, even as a large family.