how i did it

Save up to escape the cubicle life and plan my own European tour

The author in 2012 on her first European trip, in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood, where sometimes known artists create graffiti.
The author in 2012 on her first European trip, in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood, where sometimes known artists create graffiti.

I recently resigned from my full-time job, found a subletter to rent my room, and bought a plane ticket to Berlin. This summer I will spend at least two or three months traveling around Europe and writing about my experiences. I decided to go on this adventure because I’m 24 and afraid of being trapped forever in a windowless cubicle. In the last nine months, I’ve saved up enough money to live abroad for the summer and to pay my rent for a few months when I get home next fall.

I’ve known I wanted to travel again since the minute I landed on the tarmac at Logan Airport in August 2012, following a post-graduation European trip. At the time, I seriously regretted not extending my travels, but I just didn’t have the cash to do it.

When I started my first official full-time job last summer, I decided I wanted to start saving a minimum of $600 a month in order to have the money to travel again at some point. I’ve used many techniques for cutting costs and increasing my savings, some of which I started to practice back when I first returned from my last trip nearly penniless, and lived off $7 a day for a month. I’ve made many small sacrifices, and I realize not everyone would want to give up some of the things I’ve mostly done without, but this is just me sharing my experience. In spite of my mediocre entry-level income and hefty student loan bills, as well as a minor online shopping addiction, I have been able to exceed my savings goals. Here are some of theways I did it.


PAYING LESS ON HOUSING One of the greatest budget cuts I made was when I moved into a cheaper apartment last September. I cut my monthly rent by over $200 when I signed a lease for a big apartment with five friends (yes, we have two bathrooms, and two floors). Each portion of the utilities bills is lower, too, split among six people. Living with so many housemates poses challenges, but it’s worth it when saving money is a top priority.

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USING TECHNOLOGY TO MAKE A BUDGET Around the time I started my full-time job, I signed up for a bunch of budgeting applications. My favorite is Mint, which has been enormously helpful in assisting me to rein in my expenses. Mint is a free app and easily accessible in a Web browser. My favorite feature is that it displays easy-to-read infographics to report and categorize monthly spending. It also allows users to see all debts, displays transactions from all bank accounts and credit cards, encourages users to set savings goals, sends alerts for upcoming bills due and suspicious account activity, and it compares the user’s spending to the national averages in each category or at certain businesses. My big wake-up call was when I saw that I had spent close to twice the national average at Whole Foods my first month using the site.

SPENDING LESS ON FOOD AND DRINKS My first month on Mint, I spent more than $800 on food and drinks in one month — between groceries, restaurants, and bars. I set myself a monthly grocery budget of $250, and my budgets for spending at restaurants, bars, and cafes add up to another $250. Most months, I’ve managed to be significantly under budget. I shop at Stop & Shop and discount markets as much as possible and try my best to avoid the more-convenient but pricier Whole Foods. I pack my breakfast and lunch for work almost daily, and I only allow myself to eat out for dinner on special occasions or with relatives who pick up the tab. When I do go out to eat with friends, usually no more than twice a month, I always look for Groupons and other online deals for local restaurants. I also quit drinking coffee in the last six months, mainly for health reasons (it gives me brutal heartburn), but my switch to black tea has also done my wallet a favor. The Mint app also made me aware of how much I was spending while socializing over drinks, because it has a special category for alcohol and bars. I’ve lowered my spending by almost avoiding bars altogether, except for special celebrations. Whenever people invite me out for a drink, I usually decline and suggest that we have some wine or beer at my house instead.

I earn extra cash by working as a freelance writer, which has helped me build my savings much more quickly than I anticipated. Outside my 40-hour-a-week job, I get paid to write a few stories each month for various publications. Even though it doesn’t amount to much, this additional money goes straight into my savings. The catch here is that I needed to put aside tax money, as this was untaxed income. I created a third bank account to deposit a third of my freelance income for taxes. This inadvertently helped me save extra money, because I ended up not needing to pay additional taxes, as my regular job took enough taxes out of my paycheck over the course of the year. I just about broke even, according to the IRS, but I had accidentally saved up a “tax refund.” I left half of it in the account for next year’s tax bill, and put the other half in my travel savings fund.

USING CREDIT CARD POINTS When I decided to officially start planning my trip, I researched credit cards that would allow me to earn travel points. I signed up for a card through my bank that has low foreign transaction fees and includes a computer chip built into the card for protection against scammers. These chips are universal in European credit cards; many foreign businesses won’t even accept US cards that don’t have the chip. The card also offered a deal that awarded a bunch of bonus points during my first month if I spent more than $1,000. I began putting nearly all of my purchases on the card and paying it off at the end of each month. I used the points I’ve earned to knock a few hundred dollars off my plane ticket.


Overall, the biggest key to my success in saving up is self-control. I plan to continue to be budget-conscious throughout my trip. I need to keep paying off my student loans and be sure I have enough money to come home to. I want to stretch my savings as far as possible. Stay tuned: I’ll be documenting some of my experiences here in the Globe Travel section.

Anna Marden can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @annamarden.