In 2012, Jason Vitug found himself on top of a temple in Myanmar.
“I realised I was living a childhood dream,” he says of that moment, near the beginning of his year-long, 21-country travel adventure. “And I started wondering why I was the only one there. “
That epiphany became the first seed of his financial education website, Phroogal, which crowdsources high-quality answers to anyone’s burning financial questions in order to help them afford the lives they want to lead.
Vitug returned from his trip ready to help others have their own top-of-temple moments.
Travelling through countries including the Phillippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Brunei, Timor L’Este, and Belize, “relates a lot to how I view finances now, and what it truly means to live life rich,” he says.
Here, Vitug shares the personal finance lessons he absorbed on his way — along with photos of some memorable moments from his trip.
'Everything starts with a goal in mind,' says Vitug, whether that's a trip around the world or paying off $US80,000 of student loans and credit card debt, a project he had partially accomplished when he set off on his global tour.
'Your goal needs to be clear and stated. I started backpacking with a goal to see 20 countries in 12 months, and I exceeded it.' Twenty-one countries later, he's also debt-free.
A goal is the first step, but it's nothing without a plan, Vitug explains. 'Even with backpacking, you need to plan to get from one part of the country to the next.'
A plan keeps you on track to to accomplish your goals, he says, and 'a financial plan can help you achieve the lifestyle you dream.'
'I learned the value of seeking advice from locals and fellow travellers,' remembers Vitug. 'I discovered the best places to eat, cheapest accommodations, and the most beautiful places hidden from many tourists. In general, people are willing and happy to help.'
The same applies to money: 'Ask experts, or even people who lived through what you're currently going through, for guidance. You're not expected to know everything.'
Before his travels, Vitug had never used a budget, but turning $US10,000 of the money he always thought he would use for a down payment on a house into a year's travel budget taught him to accomplish his goals using only available resources.
'It's important to identify your lifestyle goal, and underneath that, the financial goals that are attached,' he explains -- and then to use your budget as a tool to reach those goals.
Once you have your goal, plan, and budget, you need to know where you stand. 'Knowing how much I was spending on a guest house, excursion, or food made me aware of keeping within my budget,' remembers Vitug.
'I'd haggle prices down or keep looking for best deals. The same thing goes with household expenses and bills: If I don't know how much I am spending on cable, a cell phone, or even something like credit card debt, then I won't realise a potential better option exists.'
'Everywhere I went, paying cash gave me a better deal,' recalls Vitug. 'I was able to negotiate better deals and lower rates.'
Applying that mentality to day-to-day transactions, he says, can help consumers avoid the credit card debt that he himself once experienced. 'Never charge anything you can't pay in cash.'
'My bus was stopped in the middle of the night in northern Thailand, and armed military came in screaming and asking for identification,' Vitug recounts. 'My American and British travel buddies had left their IDs at the guest house, but luckily I had a copy of my ID with me and was able to vouch for all of us.'
With personal finance, he says, it's the same idea: Make sure you have emergency savings set up for when you're caught unaware by a surprise cost. 'It's not a matter if whether it will happen, but when.'
'While travelling, there are people who will take advantage. Taking taxi rides from the airport, for instance, would cost triple the amount because I'm American,' Vitug says.
'It's important to know what people are selling: If I wasn't asking the right questions, then I'd end up paying more. With personal finance, it's important to read the fine print of every agreement you're signing. Ask questions until you fully understand.'
Before Vitug started on his trip, he says, he couldn't stop turning needs into 'wants.' 'I needed a vehicle to get to work. I wanted a BMW. Somehow, that became, 'I need a BMW to get to work.''
But during his travels, he boiled down his needs to two: food and shelter, even if that meant street vendors, bamboo huts, and couches. 'If you can't distinguish between wants and needs, you end up being unable to afford your lifestyle,' he cautions. Vitug hasn't owned a car since returning to the United States.
'Some people in the nations I visited only made the equivalent of $US100 a month, for housing, utilities, and food, but manage to save a dollar or two,' Vitug shares.
When he thinks back to his life before travelling, when he was racking up debt while working as a credit union executive, he says, 'I was poor. Although I made a lot more money than I do now, there was a point that my debt was more than my income. I had no assets and no savings. Wealth isn't about how much you make. It's how it's used. Wealth is what's left over after paying expenses and debts.'