A lot of people think they can’t afford to travel, but often it’s a matter of prioritizing expenses, setting a realistic budget and saving smartly. We checked in with personal finance expert Erica Sandberg to get her tips on how to save money for travel. As an avid traveler who didn’t always have the funds, she knows all about saving up for a big trip.

Erica in Costa Rica

Erica in Costa Rica

“I remember being in high school and everybody was saving for a car and I kept thinking, ‘but a car can only get you so far.’ I wanted to go around the globe, have wild adventures, get into trouble where nobody could see me! The only problem was I had to finance it all on my own. I come from a family of nine and cash was super tight. My parents were barely scraping by so there was certainly not enough to send me on an international excursion.  So I became a working machine. I babysat, hung wallpaper at a senior home, cleaned houses, watered plants in offices in the middle of the night, manned a fresh squeezed orange juice machine outside a supermarket… I don’t think I rejected any job. If it paid, I was on it.”

Nowadays, her savings strategies have changed a bit, but she still has great tips for ways to save some cash for your dream vacation.

Erica exploring Barcelona

Erica exploring Barcelona

 Add income rather than cut expenses.

I’ve found that the best way to save for travel isn’t so much to cut down on expenses (though that’s a good idea too) — it’s to earn more. There are so many income opportunities, from driving for a car-sharing company to dog walking. Make it an extreme but temporary effort. If you can bring in $500 extra per month, you’ll accumulate $2,000 in just four months. You will be so happy you did it.

Use credit wisely and don’t let debt accumulate.

saving money for travel

Don’t let credit debt build up.

I am not a big fan of charging a trip and then paying for it later — who wants to come home to a huge bill? Use your credit card to buy tickets and pay for hotels but make sure you will pay it off within a few months at the max, and before you go. Cash in any credit card reward points to pay for airfare.

If your credit rating is excellent this may be the perfect time to get a new travel card. Plenty of issuers are offering 40,000 to 50,000 miles (equivalent for a round trip domestic flight) right off the bat if you spend a few thousand dollars in the first couple of months. Use it aggressively (but keeping the balance to zero by paying it off every month) and you can rack up enough for international flight pretty quickly.

Eliminate impluse buying.

Almost all of us waste money on things we don’t care about, and then we can’t afford what we truly want. Reflect. I bet you walk into a drugstore intending on buying something necessary, like toothpaste, then you walk out with $50 worth of impulse purchases that you can do without. Do this once a week and you’ll be down $200 just on random, non-essential items. Always think before you buy. If you toss that money into a vacation fund instead, in a year you’ll have saved $2,400 that you can spend on something exotic and exciting.

This is your opportunity to be mindful. Remind yourself of the goal — it’s that trip. Refuse to overspend on junk because it will impact your ability to pay for the prize.

Find your own saving style.

how to save money for travel

Figure out the best way for you to put aside money.

Identify what works best for you. Everyone has their own style. In general, the easiest way is to have a fixed sum deducted from your checking account and siphoned into a savings account each month. Just be sure that you can live on less. You’ll have to be extra careful to spend within that lower ceiling or you could end up putting the difference on the credit cards and racking up debt.

However, if you’re going to pay for the trip with funds that you earn from a short-term position, it can be especially satisfying to physically dump all those dollars into a savings account. I have a friend who was saving for a European vacation with a job at a café, working the extra early morning shift from 5-8am before dashing off to her “real” position as a teacher. She deposited all of her wages and tips by hand into the ATM. For her, it was a thrill. She knew exactly what that money was for and it helped her get up long before the sun rose!

Allow yourself some indulgence, but balance it out with savings.

I have this thing about in-room coffee. I’ll blow a stupid amount on room service. It’s important to me, though. Waking up to a large pot of coffee while I’m still in my pajama rather than having to put on clothes and go down to the lobby or cafe makes the trip exponentially better.

On the flip side, I absolutely hate how much everything costs at the airport. It makes me livid to buy a $5 bottle of water and I won’t do it. I’ll drink the warm, terrible tasting water from the fountain instead. Every time.

Saving is all about prioritizing

Start dreaming, then prioritize. Where do you most want to go? Trust me, you’ll be so much happier if you stick to your original desire than if you downsize. For example, maybe you’ve always wanted to go on a South African safari (this is my current craving!) and to do it right it will cost ten grand. That may be a long-term goal, one that will take over two years to achieve. Resist the temptation to give up and opt for something cheaper or closer to home. You’ll be dissatisfied and that money ought to have been saved for the real thing.

Erica Sandberg is a consumer finance authority who specializes in helping people enjoy their lives, no matter how much they earn, own, or owe. She’s an advice columnist and reporter for CreditCards.com, host of Adventures With Money radio show, and covers finance for San Francisco’s KRON-TV, among many other cable and network news programs. The latest edition of her groundbreaking book, Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families, is being released in early 2017.

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