Why Don’t Worry About Money and Just Travel is the Worst Article of All Time

Caye Caulker Belize

Nothing to see here. These chairs are not for you.

There’s one travel article that really needs to be written. It’s a column we’ve had on the back burner for quite some time and it’s titled “Why ‘Don’t Worry About Money and Just Travel’ is the Worst Advice of All Time.” Unfortunately, the piece recently published by Time.com under that same headline is not at all what we had in mind.

If only its author, Chelsea Fagan, had attempted to address the title question her story may have stood as a useful tonic against some of the more irresponsible financial advice that sometimes passes for lifestyle wisdom these days. Instead, she chose to use most of her 1,100 words to rail against a single rich blogger’s privilege. Entertaining, perhaps, in the way that watching a temper tantrum can sometimes be but about as illuminating.

Worse is that rather than tearing down the travel finance myth her title promises, the article instead enthusiastically perpetuates another, more common, myth: that only the very rich can travel. Reading Ms. Fagan you’re left with the impression that there are only two economic classes in America. On one end of the financial divide are wildly wealthy trust fund kids represented by travel bloggers who want for nothing but self-awareness. On the other end are huddled masses living lives of complete immiseration. That’s it. 

In this telling there’s no room for anyone with even a modicum of financial flexibility. So when we, or other bloggers, encourage people to think more wisely about the tradeoffs between time and money and life goals what we’re really doing is writing “aspirational porn, which serves the dual purpose of tantalizing the viewer with a life they cannot have, while making them feel like some sort of failure for not being able to have it.” (emphasis mine.)

Think about that statement for a second. “Tantalizing the viewer with a life they cannot have.”

QuoteThe breadth of this claim is surely false. She’s talking, after all, about a travel blog where “the viewer” is anyone who has access to the internet. Leaving behind the spectacularly self-nullifying claim that no one on the internet can have the life that some of us on the internet have achieved, the more objectionable problem is the underlying premise that only the wildly wealthy can afford to travel. That’s demonstrably not true.

Money is certainly one limiting factor that keeps people from traveling but it’s not necessarily the most important, especially for average Americans. The bigger constraint is often whether they’re willing to do what is necessary to turn that trip into a reality.

Because once you know how to do it, a week long excursion to even an expensive European city like Paris is generally affordable. These days it’s easy enough to exploit credit card sign-up bonuses to finagle nearly free flights. When combined, the Chase Sapphire Preferred and United Explorer credit cards currently offer bonuses large enough to purchase a round trip flight to Europe.

A week in Paris for $350

You can then arrange free lodging through one or more couchsurfing hosts. That takes care of your two largest expenses. If you then shop markets for meals, take public transportation and walk instead of taxis, utilize free events and don’t go crazy with the more expensive attractions, it’s entirely possible to keep your other expenses down to $50 per day or less. By doing things that way a week in the City of Light might set you back only $350.

Now $350 is not nothing. But it’s not exactly trust-fund style money either. We’re only talking about saving a single dollar a day over the course of a year to fund a trip like this. Well, that and also being willing to jump through some credit card hoops (which might also involve repairing bad credit), do the couch surfing thing, and plan a holiday that is high on experience but low on extravagance. If I had to guess, it’s not the dollar per day cost that’s keeping most Americans from going on this kind of excursion.

But if we believe Ms. Fagan, that’s exactly what’s holding everyone back.

What the condescending traveler means by ‘not worrying’ [about money] is ‘not making it a priority, or giving it too much weight in your life,’ because on some level they imagine you are choosing an extra dollar over an all-important Experience. But the ‘worrying’ that is actually going on is the knowledge that you have no choice but to make money your priority, because if you don’t earn it — or decide to spend thousands of it on a trip to Southeast Asia to find yourself — you could easily be out on the streets. Implying that this is in any way a one-or-the-other choice for millions of Americans is as naive as it is degrading.”

Once again the only way to make sense of this statement is to read it from the perspective of abject poverty. The choice in Ms. Fagan’s mind isn’t between a daily cup of coffee and a trip to Paris but between travel and homelessness. Of course that’s a ridiculous way to frame the tradeoffs most Americans face. To see just how ridiculous let’s take a look at a couple of the ways we Americans spend our money.

Several years ago we wrote about Six Life Changing Things You Can Do for the Price of an Average U.S. Wedding. It turns out that one thing a couple can do with the money they’d typically blow on an elaborate one-day celebration is travel around the world for an entire year. How many newlyweds, mostly young people presumably “too poor to travel,” have even considered alternative uses for all that wedding cash? 

Or consider the extravagance of the average American house. Thirty years ago our houses were a third smaller than they are today even though we had more people living in them. If Ms. Fagan wants to argue that the average American can’t afford to travel because they need to work overtime to finance 1,000 square feet of living space per person she’s perfectly in her right to do so. But she might also consider that one way some of us have managed to save for travel is by choosing homes that are half to an eighth the size of the ones our less-traveled compatriots enjoy.

Average House Size

So while it’s true that there are plenty of people so financially strapped that travel is not a realistic option for them, that doesn’t remotely describe the average American. Nor does it describe the audience your typical travel blogger is even writing for.

A better article written under the same headline might have challenged the new-agey, spiritualized, financial guidance offered by some prominent bloggers or critiqued the approach favored by many 20-something gap-yearers who never imagine a day when they may no longer be physically able or willing to work menial odd jobs for a few Baht and a dorm bed.

There are plenty of examples of reckless financial advice circulating the blogosphere deserving a take down. So it’s not that we don’t agree with Time. We absolutely do. “Don’t worry about money and just travel” is spectacularly terrible advice. If only Time had published an article worthy of the topic.

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23 Comments on “Why Don’t Worry About Money and Just Travel is the Worst Article of All Time”

  1. Daedalus Lex July 7, 2015 at 9:34 am #

    Ah, I remember my younger days hitchhiking around Europe with a tent in my backpack and sneaking into college cafeterias. Good times. It wasn’t completely free but perfectly do-able for a penny-pinching restaurant worker like me. (Next time, I’ll buy my own food, I promise.) I look forward to YOUR article on the topic. Gary

    Liked by 1 person

  2. mytimetotravel July 7, 2015 at 9:56 am #

    Wow, hadn’t seen that. She really has it in for that unfortunate blogger, doesn’t she?

    And of course, there is some truth under the vitriol – there are people who have to be concerned where the next meal is coming from (read “Nickel and Dimed”), or who are caretakers for ailing or aging relatives. And it’s also true that the middle class is shrinking. But you are right that for those who are healthy and working reasonably well-paying jobs it is a matter of priorities.

    I took early retirement, with a pension (alas non-COLA’ed), so I could travel, but I could afford to do so because I live in a state with a low cost of living, and because I had been living well below my income. My pension was 40% of my final salary, not the 80% so many financial “experts” claim you need. And again, travel can be as cheap or as expensive as you choose to make it. I don’t live the backpacker life when I travel any more, but nor do I agree with the Fodor’s poster who insists you need at least $200/day to travel in Europe – sharing a room, no less!

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    • Brian July 7, 2015 at 4:37 pm #

      Yes, it’s true that there are people who can’t afford to travel. We concede as much above. But isn’t it the height of silliness for the Time author to complain that travel articles aren’t written for people who can’t afford to travel?

      Incidentally, living well below your income is kind of a prerequisite for retiring early and, I’d say, for traveling long-term in a sustainable fashion too. The 80% pre-salary rule of thumb for retirement spending is based on an assumption that people are only saving 10% of their salary or so. If you save much more, you need much less.

      Like

  3. Ms McKahsum July 7, 2015 at 10:24 am #

    Great post. Now to get Time to read it!

    Like

  4. Caz Craig Makepeace (@yTravelBlog) July 7, 2015 at 5:19 pm #

    New agey works for me. Never been happier. Take what you like, leave what you don’t. Live according to your beliefs and values and share in order to help. We’ve thousands of emails from people who are now living lives they love thanks to our spiritual new agey advice – better than being condescending. This article kind of flip flops around a bit and is hard to follow.

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    • Brian July 8, 2015 at 4:02 am #

      Fair enough. But do you ever hear from people where things maybe didn’t turn out so well? Because when you write (and I’ve paraphrased to shorten) “we made an illogical choice, but followed the joy, and the money and opportunities followed” I have to think there are going to be quite a few crack-ups among folks who try to implement a similar strategy.

      Like

  5. ExpeditionMeg July 7, 2015 at 5:20 pm #

    Very interesting read!

    Like

  6. Bulldog Travels July 8, 2015 at 1:09 am #

    I work for the government so it provides me with plenty of time off so I can travel. I am not a wealthy woman but I work all sorts of angles so I can travel as often as possible sometimes even settling for local travel just because I can.

    I often dream about being rich enough to travel full time. But, I wonder, is it not at least partially about the planning and dreaming of travel and not the travel itself? If I was able to travel all the time it might take some of the luster off. If I didn’t have to work hard for it it might not be as special to me…

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    • Brian July 8, 2015 at 3:40 am #

      You have a keen insight. Traveling all the time isn’t like vacation travel. One of the ways that it’s different is that you can’t maintain that high level of excitement every day of your life. But, it’s not like my previous 80 hour work weeks were filled with unbridled excitement either. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  7. hermitsdoor July 8, 2015 at 6:22 am #

    This concept also fits what I term our vacarious/voyeristic society. How many people watch/read about travel but never go? How many watch/read about cooking but never prepare a meal? How many people watch/read about history but do not participate in making it (or think that going to Disney World/Epcot Center is the same as going to Europe, etc.)? How many people watch/read about romance and sex (porn to still-wet novels to “historical novels” filled will rolling in the castle scenes), but do not engage in relationships. Yes, Forbe’s Lifestyle to Conte Traveler to Organic Life are selling what most people do not aspire to actually live, nor can afford.

    Time to go pick some blueberries… what actually pick them? Not just look at the over-price box in the fruit and veggie section of the grocery store?
    Oscar

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  8. Chuck & Lori July 8, 2015 at 10:10 am #

    So well said! “The bigger constraint is often whether they’re willing to do what is necessary to turn that trip into a reality.” I might suggest this is the only constraint.

    Our approach has been not only to downsize our home, but also to downsize our careers…and to take them on the road with us, demonstrating there are more means to traveling than being rich or saving it all early or retiring with a healthy 401k.

    As another commenter pointed out, the backpacking youth have been traveling long term for quite a few decades now. I guess Ms Fagan assumes they are trust funders, but I can assure you our last 14 months of travel (8 months in Europe, 6 road-tripping America) are not the result of wealth but the result of making our careers and expenses align with what we want to do.

    And so, careers in balance, we travel on!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Tim July 8, 2015 at 5:37 pm #

    Wow, I seem to agreed with the Time article.

    All the blogs I read seem to talk mostly about the positive side of travel without talking about the sacrifices and difficulties. Most blogs seems to encourage others to join them without giving the full picture of what a life on the road takes or acknowledge how lucky they are to do what they do.

    I love the line “But to encourage people to follow your very rare path, because you feel it is the only way to spiritual enlightenment or meaning, makes you an asshole.”

    Like

    • Brian July 9, 2015 at 3:27 am #

      Seeing as how you’re reading this blog (or at least this one article) I can assume that when you say “All the blogs I read . . . ” you’re talking about us, so I’ll take exception to that. 😀

      It’s true that most of our posts are about the destinations we visit. And because we like most of the destinations we visit it’s also true that we write mostly positive posts (although we don’t shy away from criticizing places that fall short of expectations or discuss things we prefer in our home country.)

      But when it comes to our “How To” style articles we try very hard to tell it like it is. We’ve written many times about how we spent five or more years downsizing, saving, and planning for our life and about how difficult it was to actually walk away from everything we’ve ever known when it came time for to do so. We’ve also written about the logistical challenges of life without a permanent residence. We’re honest about the challenges of working for your self as a freelancer. And we’re honest about the kind of savings we think folks need and how achieving that requires nothing short of a radical rethinking of your life and your relationship with money. Even our packing lists hint at the difficulties of a life on the road (e.g. the reason we carry an HDMI cable is because we don’t own a T.V. – how many people today would live like that?)

      But here’s the thing. Posts that simply complain about our hardships are boring. They’re also useless. So instead of dwelling on the challenges we think its more helpful to share how we overcame them. How you read those articles, whether as honestly disclosing the hardship or offering aspirational encouragement about tackling them, is entirely up to you.

      P.S. I can’t speak for other blogs but we’ve never once written anything about “spiritual enlightenment or meaning” and, I can say with certainty, we never will. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  10. travellinghelga July 8, 2015 at 9:38 pm #

    Great post, and I had a very similar reaction to a post about these ‘aspirational’ bloggers sugar-coating the realities of travel and assuming that everyone should be doing it or they will miss out. (http://travellinghelga.com/2015/06/16/why-not-everyone-should-quit-their-jobs-and-travel-in-their-20s/) Budget travel is easier than ever and if people are really passionate about doing it they will get there, regardless of their background and financial situation. I am funnily enough considering applying for a masters in creative writing (which I will pay for myself) – I guess Chelsea Fagan would tell me that’s a waste of time and I’m doing it because I’m so ‘privileged’. Well, at least I’m not judgmental and close-minded, Chelsea!

    Like

    • Brian July 9, 2015 at 4:54 am #

      We never traveled in our 20’s or teens or anytime before. We spent most of the first four decades of our life working hard and preparing for the future. The harder we worked and the more we focused on that future the faster it came. But only after it arrived did we go on the kind of trip we never had time for in our 20’s.

      There are many different paths that lead to the same destination.

      Like

  11. Laura July 12, 2015 at 2:13 pm #

    Here’s a slightly more thoughtful/less grouchy piece touching on some of these issues.

    http://www.redbookmag.com/life/news/a21948/i-quit-my-high-paying-job-as-a-lawyer-to-traveland-its-not-all-sunshine-and-rainbows/

    Like

    • Brian July 12, 2015 at 4:03 pm #

      I Like Jodi and her website Legal Nomads. We relied on her Saigon Street Food guide as our go-to source when we were there. And overall this Redbook article is pretty reasonable although I’d challenge her assertion that “You’ll run out of money.” It really is possible to plan for that.

      Like

  12. Julie & Marc Bennett July 28, 2015 at 10:07 pm #

    Great article as per usual. We really enjoy your insights and willingness to tackle issues like this head on. It’s sad yet I suppose not uncommon for people like Chelsea to go through life with such a chip on their shoulder… complaining about all the reasons why travel (and undoubtedly many other things) are so far out of their reach.

    We have been living, working and traveling full-time for over a year now – RVing around America in a motorhome. And we learned an enormous amount by reading your blog and learning from your experiences. Thank you.

    It’s an amazing life. Marc has a regular 40hour a week 9-5 job with a company and is able to work virtually (yes those jobs do exist for those resourceful and smart enough to seek them out) and I write for our blog (RVLove.com) full-time and also do some lifestyle coaching – both of which I can do from anywhere. We made conscious choices around our money, budget and planning for several months before embarking on this lifestyle, which we manage to do for the same cost as when we lived our regular life… all while seeing the best this country has to offer while doing it and loving the richness and diversity of our everyday.

    Sounds like poor Chelsea is so hell bent on finding examples to support her mentality of lack and limitation that she will never find a way to be free… or happy. Being able to self fund a life of travel does require making choices and reassessing values and priorities and letting go of any notion of entitlement… when you are dedicated to your vision and dreams, it’s all about making choices that are in alignment with your values and goals.

    You hit the nail on the head with this one:

    “Money is certainly one limiting factor that keeps people from traveling but it’s not necessarily the most important, especially for average Americans. The bigger constraint is often whether they’re willing to do what is necessary to turn that trip into a reality.”

    Many Americans aren’t willing to give up their cable, or their daily Starbucks habit, or downsize their car or their home and make different choices… even if it will bring them what they claim they want sooner rather than later. Yes, we hear it all the time “Oh, you are living my dream!” But so many people will die with their dreams still in them… because this lifestyle requires a shift in both thinking and in action.

    Nomadic Matt also had some great insights in this article “Why Jessica is never going to Ireland With her Boyfriend” http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/how-to-go-anywhere-you-desire/

    Ultimately, I think some people are willing to do what it takes to create the [ insert anything here – career, life, relationship – ] they truly want.. and others are programmed to just complain about why they don’t have what they want… like spoiled little children.

    Yes, I agree many people simply do not have the means to travel at all for a variety of reasons – but many do, and they are good at coming up with excuses why they cannot do it (kids, money, busy, blah blah). OK getting off my soapbox now…

    PLEASE write the article you intended by the same title – we would love to read it!

    Happy travels you two! Hopefully one day we will cross paths somewhere in the world 🙂

    Like

  13. Matthew Cloverseed Elswick September 29, 2015 at 2:48 pm #

    Fagan was right. Most folks advocating for “Don’t worry about money, just travel” have NO idea what it is like for the majority of the folks living paycheck to paycheck. The more they try to defend themselves, the more out of touch and elitist they sound.

    Like

    • Brian September 29, 2015 at 2:58 pm #

      It’s hard to know how to respond here because the entire premise of the article I wrote is that Fagan’s title is right even if her reasoning is wildly off the mark. So I’m not sure we actually disagree.

      Although I will point out that travel articles are never really intended for people who can’t afford to travel. So I wouldn’t judge travel advice blogs, and bloggers, by the yardstick that “some people can’t afford to do that” any more than I’d criticize Car & Driver for the fact that some people can’t afford a new car.

      Like

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    Like

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