Do you think your student loan debt makes it impossible for you to travel the country?
If so, you’re not alone. Our 2017 survey found that 18% of student loan borrowers can’t afford to travel during the holidays.
You don’t have to be among these statistics. Justine Nelson, the founder of the personal finance blog Debt Free Millennials, paid off $35,000 in student loan debt over the course of two and a half years — and she did it while traveling all over the United States, including Puerto Rico.
Here’s how she did it and how you can, too.
1. Prioritize your vacation wish list
As an intern working for $10 an hour right after college, Nelson didn’t have the money to travel a lot. However, she was able to narrow her focus and enjoy travel by breaking down costs and prioritizing the trips that were most doable.
“Write out all the trips you want to take within the year,” Nelson said. “Estimate how much your expenses will be with each trip.”
Looking at the year ahead helps you break things down into manageable steps, according to Nelson. Additionally, it helps you face the reality that you might not be able to take all your desired trips in the year. “You’ll have to ask yourself which vacation is the most realistic for you to save up for,” she said.
Over time, Nelson’s income improved. She started earning $33,000 a year, and eventually ended with a salary of $41,000 a year during her debt-free journey.
But she wanted to make sure to pay for trips in cash and travel as cheaply as possible by prioritizing her destinations — especially since she still was paying off student debt.
“When you focus on just a few trips, you’re more likely to take the steps to make those vacay days a reality,” Nelson said.
2. Consider low-cost destinations
Nelson wasn’t visiting high-priced cities. Instead, she chose destinations such as Colorado Springs, Colorado; Lake Tahoe, California; and Daytona Beach, Florida. She eventually visited Puerto Rico, but she wasn’t living in the lap of luxury, even when she traveled.
She looked for places that had something of interest but didn’t cost too much.
For example, a trip to Colorado Springs might cost a total of $500 if you are close enough to drive rather than fly, can stay on someone’s couch, and if you like cheap outdoor activities, such as hiking.
Compare that with a trip to Denver, where you might spend $500 just for the hotel room for a few nights.
Sometimes, it was hard for Nelson to make tough choices. “I had difficulty figuring out what trips I really wanted to go on, and the ones I had to say no to,” she said.
However, getting the system down and being honest about it helped her stay on track and continue reducing her student loan debt even while she traveled.
3. Break down your costs
Next, list your potential travel expenses. Nelson organized her expenses under the following categories.
Then she did the research to estimate travel costs in each category and figure out ways to save money in some ways, such as staying with friends or finding free activities at the destination. She also could use the comparisons to see if she could save money by driving instead of flying.
“My best friend lived in Florida, so I went to see her and crashed on her couch,” said Nelson. “That easily saved me $100 per night in hotel expenses.”
Nelson made it a point to take trips to places where her friends and family lived so she could reduce her overall costs. It allowed her to visit people she loved and experience new destinations without breaking the bank.
4. Factor travel into your budget
“Open up a separate savings account for your cross-country adventures,” Nelson recommended. “When you keep the money in a separate fund, you’re more likely to be motivated by how much is in the account.”
It’s not just about opening the account, though. You also need to make travel a line item in your budget. Travel needs to be a budgetary priority — it’s like making student loan payments or paying for housing.
“Look at your monthly budget and figure out where you can cut expenses so you can start contributing monthly to a vacation fund,” Nelson said.
There’s a good chance you’re spending money on things that aren’t that important to you. Whether it’s eating out more than you should or paying for services you don’t use, you can identify and cut those items and divert the money to your travel savings account.
Over time, Nelson was able to cut back on overspending at the store with impulse purchases, reduce her telecommunications bill, and generally be ruthless while trimming expenses. That enabled her to eventually direct $1,200 a month toward her student loan debt.
5. Be ready to snap up deals
Having money sitting in a special account gives you the ability to snap up deals. “It was challenging, at first, to come up with the cash if I saw a really good deal on a flight,” said Nelson. “You have to act on those quickly.”
She began to see increased success as she worked on her system and became better at it. The freedom to take advantage of low prices and special promotions meant better trips over time.
Nelson thinks it’s important to research deals at destinations in advance. “Booze, food, and fun add up throughout the trip, so I should have researched local pricing a bit more at times,” she said.
6. Travel with friends
In addition to traveling to see friends, Nelson also went on trips with friends. Splitting expenses, especially for accommodations, can make a huge difference in your total trip cost.
“My trip to Puerto Rico was affordable because we split the cost of the room between four of us,” said Nelson. “We also opted for cheap Airbnbs as opposed to swanky four-star hotels. Who wants luxury when you’re spending most of your time on the beach anyway?”
Traveling with friends also can help you save money on transportation costs during a trip. You can spit the cost of a rental car or a ride-sharing service. Stay in a place with a working kitchen, so you and your friends can split the grocery bill and prepare a few home-cooked meals instead of eating out every day.
7. Use loyalty points
Nelson didn’t worry too much about being loyal to brands. Looking back on her travels, however, she thinks she could’ve gotten even more value out of her experiences.
“I would try to be more brand-loyal to a particular airline to increase my frequent flyer points, allowing me to allocate more money toward entertainment and food,” Nelson said.
Some travel sites, such as Orbitz, offer their own loyalty rewards when you book through them, allowing you to save money on accommodations later. There also are credit card loyalty programs, such as American Express, that partner with Airbnb to allow you to redeem card points for reservations booked on the vacation rental website.
When you earn credit card travel rewards and brand loyalty points, you have a chance to significantly reduce your travel costs so that your student loan payments don’t get in the way of your next trip.
8. Get creative with your budget
Creativity can go a long way with your budget. When Nelson’s Ford Escort was rear-ended, she could have allowed the insurance company to total the car, give her some cash, and then use that money as a down payment for an expensive car.
Instead, Nelson asked for a salvage title and got $3,200 from her insurance company. She then went to a vehicle junkyard, found a replacement bumper for $25, and kept driving her old car.
It’s important to be careful with these types of creative solutions, however. Nelson’s car was safe to drive; it just needed a bumper. Before you do the same, have an expert look over your car to ensure it’s safe to drive.
Looking for creative solutions to budget for challenges allowed her to keep putting extra money toward demolishing her student loan debt while taking trips she enjoyed. “I was able to get creative so I could throw extra money at my loans,” Nelson said.
9. Reward yourself with a trip
“Using a trip as a reward is going to motivate you to pay off debt that much quicker,” Nelson said. “When you pay off a small debt, reward yourself with a trip.” One of Nelson’s rewards was a whitewater rafting trip with her family.
Instead of consolidating her student loans and making one monthly payment, Nelson kept everything separate. She used the debt snowball method, popularized by financial blogger and author Dave Ramsey, to pay off her debt by tackling her smallest loan first. Even though paying off loans with higher interest rates first while making minimum monthly payments on other loans can save money overall, the reality was that Nelson wanted to stay motivated. Those small, quick wins of paying off smaller loans kept her going, especially since she knew she could take a trip after paying off a loan.
You can travel even if you have student loan debt
You don’t have to put off your travel dreams due to student loan debt.
By prioritizing travel along with student loan repayment, it’s possible to reorder your finances so that you can enjoy your life now, rather than waiting for some distant future.
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