We’ve heard comments like You must have a lot of money to be able to afford your lifestyle or I wish I could afford your lifestyle so many times over the years, we stopped counting. Travelling full-time is actually way less expensive than many think. And with the increasing cost of living top of mind for many, we asked ourselves: Could it actually be cheaper to travel full-time than live in an expensive city like Sydney?
For those of you who don’t know us: Until September 2016, we lived the traditional, corporate life in Sydney, Australia. Numbeo ranks Sydney as the 38th most expensive out of 569 cities in the world (behind New York at 16th and close to London at spot 33). This is pretty close to the results Mercer found in their annual Cost of Living Survey, which ranked Sydney as the 31st most expensive city. In comparison, New York ranked 14th and London 18th.
So, how does a life of full-time travel compare with living in Sydney? See what we’ve found after more than four years of being nomads.
Our Cost of Living comparison
While we have used several different accounting applications to track our expenses over the years, for our comparison, we have aggregated all our expenses into the following categories:
- Accommodation and Utilities
- Groceries and Dining
- Transport and Travel
- Insurance, Bank fees and Government charges.
And this is what it looks like – the blue columns are our expenses in Sydney, the grey ones our average over the last 4+ years:
Having now lived three different lifestyles in four different regions, our daily cost of living compared as follows:
|Location||Expenses per person per day (USD)|
|Corporate Life Sydney 2016||107.49|
|Backpacking Americas 2017||76.74|
|Van Life New Zealand (with the occasional house sit) 2018||54.86|
|Backpacking Europe (with the occasional house sit) 2019||55.00|
|Backpacking New Zealand (with the occasional house sit) 2020||46.41|
Our cost of living were converted from the countries’ currencies to USD using the average interbank exchange rates valid at the time.
Let’s check out how each expense category compares in detail.
Accommodation and Utilities
USD37 per person per day
Above number includes the payments we made for our mortgage, council rates, utilities (that is, water, electricity, gas), home repairs, cleaner, gardener and communications (internet and mobile phone).
Our house was mortgaged at 80% of the purchase price, with part of our mortgage offset against our savings to reduce our interest payments. Nevertheless, our biggest expense item within this category were our mortgage repayments (making up 2/3 of this expense category).
To our surprise, the costs of our cleaner and gardener came in at a second place, costing USD5 per person per day (or 14% of this category).
Utilities and communications costs came in at an equal third place, with 9% respectively.
USD17 per person per day (-56%)
Having sold our house, mortgage repayments, council rates, utilities, home repairs, cleaner and gardener were a thing of the past, shaved a whopping 91% (or USD24,937 per year) from this category. Even after paying for short-term accommodation, we were able to save USD12,402 per year.
Another great save were our communication costs: Maintaining only prepaid contracts for our mobile phones (to make phone calls if required where global roaming was available) and utilizing Wi-Fi wherever possible, we were able to reduce our communications costs also by 91% (or USD2,138 per year).
Living on the road, however, created some new expenses too: laundry and toilet fees, our safety deposit box and mailbox service, as well as house sitting membership fees added USD538 per year to this category.
Groceries and Dining
USD22 per person per day
Sydney is a great place to eat out. You could go overboard and eat at a different restaurant every night of the year and still not experience a quarter of the eateries.
That said, in our last year (2016) in Sydney we used to go to our local pub every Friday night and to a restaurant or café every two weeks (usually when we caught up with friends).
Despite having a coffee machine at home, we tended to buy a coffee every morning (and several more throughout the day in Paul’s case).
With our hectic lifestyles, we would also often buy lunch near our offices. Only occasionally, we would bring in leftovers for lunch.
USD14 per person per day (-37%)
These days, we usually have breakfast and (at least) dinner at home. We may have a meal out when we’re out and about exploring, taking advantage of special lunch deals. Another great save for us is sharing the main meal (or a starter and main), especially in countries where the meals tend to be XXL sized (like the US and Cuba).
Eating at home is not always the cheaper option by the way: In Ecuador for example, the almuerzo (set lunch, usually three courses and a drink) was always a more cost-effective option than cooking at home (and a great way to get to know the local cuisine). And in the smaller Caribbean islands, imported groceries like cereal, yogurt or cheese were significantly more expensive than in Sydney.
While less common in Australia, tipping at restaurants is expected in some other countries, especially in the US. Tips are therefore included in this category.
Transport and Travel
USD20 per person per day
As we lived in Sydney’s Inner West with good bus connections to our respective offices, we did not (need to) own a car. We did, however, use the GoGet car share service on weekends (for example, to buy groceries or visit friends in outer suburbs). Car sharing and parking costs, as well as public transport, are included in this category.
Above figure also includes our trips within Australia and overseas, including Italy and Germany in November 2015; Country New South Wales in January 2016; the Hunter Valley in March 2016; New Zealand in April and July 2016, New Caledonia in June 2016; and the Snowy Mountains in July 2016.
Beyond the actual transport (by plane and/or car) and tourism activities, above also includes accommodation and dining during our trips. We didn’t record our trip spend at that level of detail, so weren’t able to split them out, sorry. While the average for this category would have reduced, Sydney would have come out even more expensive in the categories Accommodation and Utilities, and Groceries and Dining above.
USD22 per person per day (+6%)
Above includes inter-country transport – our flights from/to Sydney or Auckland and the transport (by any means) between the countries we’ve visited to date – as well as intra-country transportation (by any means).
For the purpose of this comparison, it also includes our spend for tourism activities (day tours, entry fees and the like), since we included them in our overall holiday costs when we lived in Sydney. Our most expensive activities over the last 4+ years were a one day tour in the Galapagos Islands (USD160pp), a Sunset Sail in Santorini (EUR135pp) and a full-day Sailing trip on an old schooner in St Vincent and the Grenadines (USD90pp), but many tourism activities we do are actually free or very inexpensive.
While we travelled around a fair bit, we were able to save a bit too. We used One World and Star Alliance air miles (from Auckland to San Francisco, from Toronto to New Orleans, from New York to Quito and from Sydney to London) and picked travel dates that had lower fares (things you can do when your schedule is flexible).
Unfortunately, coming back earlier than planned from the Americas due to a family emergency and from Europe due to the birth of our first granddaughter, wiped out many of these savings. But that’s what you do to be with your loved ones. Right?
USD6 per person per day
Above includes our spend for our
- Hobbies (Paul’s running, Sandra’s sadly under-utilized gym membership, yoga classes, swimming pool entry fees, as well as martial art classes for both of us); and
- Entertainment (for example, tickets for the Sydney Festival and various Film Festivals, cinema tickets, eBooks, streaming music and movie downloads).
Paul’s passion for running means that he bought new running shoes every three to four months. He also challenged himself by competing in running races. The costs of his running gear and entry fees for these events are included in above.
When we lived in Sydney, we had the newspaper delivered on the weekend. With us not being able to enjoy breakfast together during the week, weekend breakfasts (and reading the paper), was one of our rituals and little pleasures of Sydney life.
USD2 per person per day (-65%)
Removing Sandra’s gym membership, yoga classes, swimming pool entry fees, as well as our martial art classes and newspaper subscription shaved 28% (or USD3,982) per year off this category.
We still download Kindle books, though there are a few more travel guides now in our library. While we have more time reading and watching movies on the road, we spend 76% less on it, thanks to free articles, eBooks, podcasts and YouTube videos.
Paul continued to run (after the New York City Marathon). He did buy new running shoes (three times) in 2017 but wore his running clothes for longer. He even attended a few running events (including the Mexico City Half-Marathon in July 2017). A running accident in New Zealand in August 2018 and a torn meniscus in Europe a year later – both of which required surgery – meant he didn’t run (much) until October 2020. When he resumed running, Paul completely swapped out his running gear. He now runs in minimalist, zero drop Xero HFS shoes.
Apart from our hobbies, above figure also includes events we may go to, and our Spanish lessons in Ecuador and Guatemala. It also includes our tickets for New Year’s Eve at Times Square in New York (which cost over USD900 for the two of us – money not well spend, but you live and learn).
USD14 per person per day
This category includes our spend on
- Medical and dental treatments (29%)
- Haircuts, facials, manicures/pedicures and massage/chiropractor treatments (32%)
- Clothing (29%); as well as
- Gifts and donations (9%).
As we adopted minimalism, our gift-giving changed (for example, for our wedding, we asked our guests to donate to charities rather than give us physical gifts). We didn’t buy physical gifts for each other or for our friends and families, instead chose to gift experiences or money to contribute to something they actually needed.
Included in above are
- Medical and dental check-ups (including costs for some vaccination fresh-ups) to ensure that we left the country in good shape.
- Clothes purchases for our life on the road (Check out our packing lists: Female / Male).
While you could argue that these might slightly skew the numbers, we used to buy fewer yet higher quality items and get dental check-ups regularly anyway. Hence, we didn’t really see the point in trying to split them out.
USD4 per person per day (-73%)
All the pampering and clothes shopping to maintain good looks for our corporate careers, and recuperate from our hectic lifestyles, are no longer necessary these days. We are more active, in the sun and fresh air (rather than hunched over a desk in an air-conditioned office for 50-60 hours a week).
That said, we still see doctors when needed or get a dental and eye check-up regularly. We also still have hair cuts (though Sandra’s are mostly done by Paul these days), and the occasional manicure/pedicure or massage.
We experienced the health care systems of several host countries over the years, including Ecuador, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Guatemala, New Zealand, Germany, Serbia and Turkey. Treatments cost us hardly anything as they were either sponsored by the government, covered by our travel insurance or by the accident compensation scheme (in New Zealand). We only had to pay for medication (at a similar cost to Sydney) or very manageable top-ups/excess fees for our claims.
While we haven’t bought physical gifts for many years, when our granddaughter Rosie turned 1 in January 2021, we set up a college fund for her. Until she turns 18, we invest a fixed amount every month into two exchange traded funds (ETFs) on her behalf. Call us boring, but we are minimalists, and that’s how we gift these days.
As giving to those less fortunate is close to our hearts, we continue to donate at the same level as before and continue to seek out volunteering opportunities whenever the opportunity arises.
Insurance, bank fees and government charges
USD7 per person per day
Like most people, we dislike paying Bank Fees of any sort, especially unnecessary ones. We always pay our credit card statements in full (in Sydney and on the road).
USD4 per person per day (-46%)
Though occasionally, we may incur fees for ATM cash withdrawals, we only use cards/banks that don’t charge foreign transaction fees. Our bank fees are therefore only marginally higher than when we lived in Sydney. Visas/entry fees/tourist cards and exit fees/departure taxes add around USD215 per year to our bill.
How our spending focus has changed
Looking at these good old-fashioned pie charts above (you can take an analyst out of Sydney but you can’t take the analyst out of Sandra), we have essentially traded comfort and luxury (by reducing our spend on Accommodation and Utilities, and Wellbeing) for the ability to travel and explore the world (increasing our Transport and Travel spend). Groceries and Dining, Leisure as well as Insurance, Bank fees and Government charges still make up a similar proportion of our spend. A proof that apart from taking our life on the road, some things don’t change (at least not significantly).
We can confirm that you can live for less travelling full-time than in an expensive city like Sydney – 46% less on average, in our case. While we took advantage of the cost of living disparities (also called geoarbitrage) in countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Serbia or Albania, disparities were not in our favor in other countries, including the US, several Caribbean islands, New Zealand or Iceland.
Whether you want to embark on a similar lifestyle change or are looking for ways to make living in your city more affordable, starting point to all of this is to really know what you spend your money on.
Once you do, ask yourself whether what you are spending your money on is aligned with your values. A great help is to calculate how much a new purchase would cost you in (additional) work hours or days. Stop (or at least reduce) spending money on anything that doesn’t give you value, and redirect the freed up funds to what is truly important to you (visiting your grandma more often or paying your debt off as fast as possible – whatever it may be).
While we have proven that full-time travel doesn’t need to break the bank, we still spend money (which we need to earn in the first place). Developing a number of (smaller) income streams that enable us to sustain our nomadic life into the future has therefore been a key priority for us over the last 4+ years.
Feature photo courtesy of Liam Pozz on Unsplash.