Living Frugally as a Vagabond

I thought about naming this article “How to save money by putting a water bottle in your underwear” but then thought better.  It’s a good tip though, and I will share that with you shortly (pun intended).

This article was originally published on Your Money Geek as a guest post by Bonnie, half of the 43BlueDoors team.

We live as a vagabond, literally a person with no permanent home.  That doesn’t mean destitute or without money.  We saved enough before retiring to sustain our lifestyle, one where we move from place to place every few days or weeks to explore the world.
I’m sitting here in Sucre, Bolivia on a very comfortable queen-size bed in a tiny apartment, complete with kitchen, bathroom, and shelves that fit everything we own. We don’t own much, it all fits in two backpacks: a 50-liter and a 40-liter. They are big enough for everything we need.

The kitchen is small with only a two-burner stove, more than sufficient for my husband and I. The bathroom is also small. You could brush your teeth, take a shower, and use the toilet all at the same time, yet it doesn’t feel cramped. It’s an open space with adequate room to do each task individually.

Apartment in Sucre, Bolivia home for a vagabond
Our small apartment in Sucre, Bolivia. Not bad for a vagabond.

All of this for just $10 a night. So maybe they didn’t sand the door down before painting it. It looks a little rough but it is all clean, private, and comfortable. We even have a large skylight in the middle of the room that fills the entire place with warm, natural light all day long.

How did we find such an inexpensive place?  Airbnb, the website where locals can earn a little bit to boost their income by renting out one of their rooms.  We love it not only for the entrepreneurial opportunity it gives locals, but we also get to stay with locals and get to know them.


Retiring Early

When we quit our jobs in 2016 to become full-time nomads we really didn’t know what to expect. We had no idea what it would cost and we wondered if we could afford it. Some people thought we were crazy to retire at 43, sell everything, and just take off to travel the world.

Based on other blogs we put down a rough sketch of what we thought it would cost. We sat down with our financial advisor and asked him if he thought we were crazy, and if he thought we could do it. He said yes (that we could do it, not that we were crazy).

In October of that year, we took a one-way flight to Costa Rica. Our only plan was to explore Central and South America. When we were done with that, we would see to which continent the next cheap flight would take us. No time limit.

It has been nothing like we expected and more than we hoped for. We absolutely love the lifestyle.

What does a Nomadic or Vagabond Lifestyle Cost?

We traveled for less than $5,000 USD each during our first year of travel.  This includes all living and travel expenses except medical insurance and medical costs. We thought it was going to cost us twice that amount so we were pretty excited.  It was like a game for us. To be real, our second year will probably cost twice that amount, but I’ll get to that in a bit.  Other continents we know will cost more.

Travel Hacking for Long-Term Travel

Cell Phones

We don’t have a cell phone number.  This was the hardest thing for me to give up. I’ve had that cell phone number for years – everything was tied to it! When my husband first suggested getting rid of our numbers I didn’t answer him right away. This was the one monthly expense I insisted on keeping. But as I thought about it the more I was willing to give it a try. One by one I went through all my accounts and redirected account recoveries and password resets. Then the day came to cancel our cell service. I was uncomfortable but saw the wisdom in it. We really didn’t need it.


I can honestly say 18 months later that I don’t miss it in the least. We have Wi-Fi at most of the places we stay. I can call anyone in the USA over my google phone for free anytime I want. Calls can be made over facebook messenger and over WhatsApp. I really no longer see the need for it with our lifestyle.

Phone Number Tips

Keep your Old Number: You don’t have to give up the cell phone number that you have had for years.  Set up a Google Voice account and transfer/port your current phone number to it – no more monthly fees.  I wish I had known this 18 months ago.

WhatsApp: A phone number is required for WhatsApp, but it doesn’t have to be your cell phone number.  You can tie WhatsApp to your Google Voice number.

Credit Card Hacking vs. Frozen Credit

We didn’t take out credit cards for their miles, cancel them and then re-up the next year. That may work for some and there are quite a few sites that give advice on how to do this if you are interested. We don’t really need this with slow travel.

In fact, we have frozen our credit with all three bureaus. It’s for peace of mind. No one can take out a loan against our SSNs, no one can open a credit card in our name. We can’t even do this ourselves without going through the steps of unfreezing our credit. Since we don’t ever plan on taking out another loan and we don’t need any more credit cards, it is not a problem for us to have it frozen. It is a great way to protect our assets. This Credit Freeze Guide is a great resource for building in this security.

How we Live Frugally on the Road

Time

The biggest advantage I feel we have as long-term travelers is time.

We take local transportation. Since the beginning of this journey, we have explored Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and are now in Bolivia. We have only taken two flights during that time. One flight was taken to skip over the Darian Gap, a piece of land connecting Central and South America where you will most likely die from wild animals or at the hands of drug lords if you try to cross it.  The other flight was within Colombia because it was actually cheaper than the bus.

Traveling slow not only gives us the opportunity to get to know each country (we typically spend three months in each country) it also allows us to take advantage of some deals. While in Bogota we visited the Gold Museum on a Sunday because it is free that day of the week. On a short vacation one may not be able to wait for a specific day to visit.

Time also allows us to do things ourselves instead of paying for tours or services. Sometimes doing it ourselves might result in a very cold night on the edge of a volcanic crater. Other times it means taking the longer path, like local transportation over land and sea in Nicaragua to reach the Corn Islands instead of a flight.  It does, however, result in some great memories. We are having a lot of fun doing it the adventurous way.

Reuse and DIY

Reuse and do it yourself is something we practiced even before retiring. Both my husband and I enjoy figuring out a way to fix things ourselves. Like the time my husband wrecked his motorcycle and broke the clutch handle off, thankfully he was not hurt. Rather than getting it towed, we found a way to get the motorcycle to work with a lever off one of our bicycles, a small bungee cord, and one of my earrings. He was able to drive it home and then replace the clutch lever himself.

What does a small daypack have in common with a new pair of women’s boxers? This is no joke. I’m getting to that waterbottle pun I mentioned at the beginning of this article.

We have a daypack that we use for hiking or for walking around town when we have a place to stash our main backpacks. It works great because it rolls up to a size of a burrito and we just tuck it away when not in use. The problem was that it was sometimes annoying because it only had one big compartment. I couldn’t organize anything, and I really like having things organized.

We could have upgraded to a new daypack. Or, we could modify what we had. I found this very pretty pair of ladies boxers for $1. I cut it in half and sewed one leg to each side of our daypack. Voila! Problem solved. Easy access side pockets that can expand in size and is still packable when not in use.

Backpack modified with boxers
Trin on the left with the backpack looking over Cochabamba, Bolivia before the modification. Trin on the right with the boxers modified backpack.

Take Breaks on the Cheap

Exploring every day can get exhausting. Moving from place to place is fun, but can also get tiring. At times we just want to take a break and stay put. Taking time to relax or to do something different that keeps us in place for a bit is a nice change of pace.

House-sit, home for a Vagabond

House-sitting is staying in someone’s home free while he/she is on vacation. It is a good inexpensive way for the homeowners to make sure someone is looking after their place and any pets that they may have to leave behind. For a nomad, it is an awesome way to be “home” for a few weeks. For those of us who love pets, the animals are a huge bonus.

Lolita in Villa de Leyva loved by a Vagabond
Lolita the dog I fell in love with in Villa de Leyva, Colombia

We did a house-sit in Colombia. Three weeks of downtime in a beautiful home with a pool and even a maid who came in to do the cleaning every weekday was exactly what we needed at that time. I fell hopelessly in love with Lolita, the pet dog. It was very difficult to say goodbye.

Volunteer

I look at volunteering as a personal benefit. It is a great way to meet locals and see a different way of life and learn from it. Even if you are not living a nomadic life, volunteering in your community can give you a sense of belonging and can be a great family-building activity.

We like to make sure our travel is responsible and that we are helping along the way. We are a bit picky about our volunteer choices. I’m not a fan of organizations that come into a community with the idea that they have the ticket on the best way to live, because no one does. While every culture has its faults or things they need to adapt to, they also have something that we can learn from.

Therefore we look for opportunities where the locals play a huge part in the organization, helping to direct it or even leading it. For example, in Nicaragua, one organization we joined was asked by a local village to help their people get housing. They had quite a few families living under large plastic sheets. The village had us meet the families and showed us where the housing was needed.

In the week we spent there, our team built eight metal construction homes. As a bonus, I got to learn how to use a nibbler and loved it! We also meet a truly amazing group of people. We built homes and beautiful memories.

Our volunteering opportunity in Ecuador, started by a local Colombian/Ecuadorian man, is what gave us the inspiration to monetize our blog. This organization is building a home for girls rescued from human trafficking.  It will be a safe place for them to live and learn new life skills.

Quito Sunset from Dunamis Foundation
View of the valley from the future safe house being built by the Dunamis Foundation

We were writing our blog for fun, as a way to bring the world to the doorstep of our friends back home, as a way to open different cultures up to people who can’t or won’t travel.  Writing has become one of my passions.  Why not monetize it to see if it could bring in a little extra to help fund this organization?  We just started and are still figuring out how to make it turn a profit, but we love our freedom to travel and to come and go as we please. I’d like to help others who have had their freedom stolen from them to also have more opportunities.

Volunteering not only gives you free lodging, it also adds richness to life.

 WorkAway

WorkAway is a site where people, non-profits, or businesses can ask for help.  There are also sites such as Helpx and Woof that have similar opportunities.  Woof is more focused on helping organic farmers.

Since we don’t need to work I’ve avoided any of the “opportunities” on Workaway that are asking for help at a hostel or a business. They really should be hiring someone to do the job.  We have nothing against anyone who does this, we just don’t want to.

There are however a few gems on this site. We did one WorkAway for a nonprofit in Costa Rica and spent time painting chairs. I love to paint and find it relaxing. We also got to stay in the jungle with howler monkeys waking us up each morning. How cool is that?

Another opportunity on WorkAway landed us into a friendship with a Cowboy in Boquete, Panama. He had recently lost his wife and wanted someone to cook for him. As I read the request I felt like he was really looking to have someone around to keep him company and we were looking to stay put for a little bit. So we cooked meals for him and we got to ride horses with him through the stunning Boquete mountains.

Hacienda in Boquete, our temporary vagabond home
The Hacienda in Boquete, Panama

The Hacienda in Panama with the cowboy was a luxurious break and we did not have to pay for room and board.

Splurging is Part of the Deal

We generally take the time to search out how to do things ourselves or find the best price on most things. But sometimes we splurge such as taking a Galapagos cruise – a big reason why our second year on the road will cost twice as much as the first year, but we saved for things like this.

It’s about spending our money on the things that are most important to us.  It’s like Michelle said in her post about living in a nice house while pursuing Financial Independence, it is okay to spend and not feel guilty about it.  Just spend on the important things in life.

We have all that we need. We have the time to follow our passions, like exploring and writing, getting to know people and being there for them. A good life is not about a dollar sign or getting a list of action items done. It is about living life with a purpose.

Find your blue door

Feature image for this article taken in a box canyon in Utah where we camped.


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8 thoughts on “Living Frugally as a Vagabond”

  1. You are definitely improving with each blog in your writing skills. (Not that it was bad from the start). At the same time, each of the blogs are very informative. So happy that you guys get to do something that you love and at the same time keeping family informed about you all as well as being informative for anyone to read. Keep up the great work! Love you!

    Reply
    • Thank you, Jackie! And thank you for staying with us through this learning process, it has been a lot of fun.

      Reply
  2. Great advice. Another great site is Trusted House Sitters. You do have to pay a yearly fee but you are getting free accommodations in beautiful areas around the world.

    Keep the post coming. We always enjoy reading them.

    Cheers,
    John and Susan

    Reply
    • Thank you! We have considered Trusted House Sitters but they are five times the yearly fee as Mind My House. Of course Trusted might have more options. Do you use them?

      Reply
    • Thanks, yes for us I feel like house sitting is simply perfect for a break. I also love giving the home owners peace of mind that we will love their animals and watch over and care for their property. Everyone benefits:)

      Reply
  3. Love reading your blog and stories. The great photos, hacks, and tips that you’ve shared add additional value. I listened to your story on ChooseFI podcast and I am enchanted with your path. Thanks for a great post!

    Reply

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