- Elizabeth Aldrich is a freelance writer who lives in Costa Rica when she’s not travelling.
- Aldrich saves 50% of her income by controlling her biggest expenses: housing, transportation, and food. She spends the most money on travel, which adds up to over $US12,000 a year.
- For Business Insider’s “Real Money” series, she tracked her spending for a week as she spent several days in Costa Rica and then travelled back to the US to visit family.
- Want to share a week of your spending? Email [email protected].
I recently watched a talk from one of the internet’s favourite financial gurus, Ramit Sethi, and he kept repeating this one line: Spend extravagantly on the things you love, and cut costs mercilessly on the things you don’t. This line is a pretty apt description of my money philosophy and how I make my unconventional lifestyle work.
I’m just going to come out and say it: I spend, on average, more than $US1,000 per month on travel. My travel spending adds up to $US12,000 per year even though I spend about $US36,000 per year in total. Now, let me rewind and explain.
Four years ago I lived up to the ultimate millennial expectation:I saved up $US5,000 and quit my job to travel. I travelled around Central America and volunteered on a ranch in Costa Rica in exchange for Spanish lessons. I fell in love with the small town I stayed in, and then with a man I met, and decided that I really wanted to stay.
Unfortunately, my bank account disagreed. It was almost empty at this point. I’d learned a lot while travelling about various remote work opportunities and met people who were travelling the world while working online, so I opened up an account on popular freelancer website PeoplePerHour.com.
I picked up low-paying gigs here and there but struggled financially for my first year. Living in a low-cost area was the only way I was able to make it work. I built up a career as a freelance financial writer, also offering content marketing and strategy consulting services. By the second year, I was up to the $US40,000 salary I had at my previous job. By the third year,I almost doubled my previous salary.
In 2019, which will be my fourth year living abroad, I expect to make around $US85,000 – a salary I never would have dreamt of while working in a traditional full-time job. My goal for 2020 is to breach six figures.
I try to be careful with my money but I also don’t like to deprive myself of meaningful experiences … or delicious food. While travel is the biggest category on my budget, I don’t spend anywhere near what most people would assume I do on it given how often I’m travelling. Credit card perks and rewards help a lot in that area, but so does travelling to low-cost areas, staying with family and friends, and knowing how to find fun, low-cost activities and budget eats.
I don’t consider myself to be particularly frugal. I live my life to the fullest. But by being strategic with my money – by spending generously on the things that really matter while cutting down extremely on things that don’t measurably improve my life – I’m able to live what feels like a very full life while still saving money.
In August, the month I tracked my spending, I spent a total of $US2,255.
I live with my boyfriend, who manages a bed and breakfast where we live. Because I have the privilege of being able to earn US dollars, I make a lot more money, so I cover all of our bills and travel expenses. He covers some of our groceries and dining out expenses and puts the rest away in our travel savings account.
Our rent is $US180, and internet and utilities cost us around $US50 each month. Food expenses include about $US300 per month on groceries and $US300 dining out, but we spent less in August. If I were to cut down my spending, this is one of the first areas I would attack.
My personal care expenses include my getting my hair and nails done, housekeeping, and laundry service. Giving includes donations, gifts, and money I give to support creators and activists.
As for travel, that category includes transportation such as flights, gas, shuttles, buses, and trains as well as tours and activities and accommodations. I tend to skimp most on accommodations, staying in private rooms in hostels or shared Airbnbs when I’m not with family and friends, which comes out to around $US20 to $US40 per night between the two of us.
While my travel spending seems high to many, I travel very frequently. By the end of 2019, I will have gone on 10 international trips and countless weekend trips within Costa Rica.
Business expenses include everything from ordering business cards and paying for my web hosting to hiring virtual assistants and outsourcing time-consuming tasks.
My shopping expenses are a lot lower living in Costa Rica because there’s no where to shop nearby, and most online shops won’t deliver here. Not having access to Amazon Prime is such a blessing in disguise! I save a lot of money living here that I would have spent online shopping.
I started 2019 putting $US3,000 to $US4,000 in savings each month, but recently I’ve been able to increase that number to $US5,000 per month. Living here, I’m able to save more than half of my income.
Typically, I can spend anywhere from $US200 to $US1,000 a week.
My weekly spending fluctuates a lot depending on whether I’m travelling or at home and whether I’m making big purchases like flights and hotels or not.
I can spend anywhere from $US200 to $US1,000 in a week. This week was on the lower end of what I spend each week – I totaled just $US389 – because I stayed with family during my travels and used credit card points instead of cash for my travel purchases.
On Saturday, I spent the day outside with friends and paid $US60 to book a shuttle to the airport.
We all gathered at a friend’s house for coffee and baked goods in the morning. I brought some homemade papaya empanadas I’d bought from my neighbour a few days earlier. It was extremely hot that day, so we decided to go to the river for a swim, which I can walk to from my house.
After spending some time cooling off at the river, we walked to a little family-owned restaurant in the centre of town for snacks and drinks. I got enyucados, which are little fried yucca balls stuffed with cheese and herbs, and a couple of beers. Beers are around $US2.50 each and the plate of enyucados, an appetizer, was $US4, so I spent $US9 total. In the evening I watched a movie at home with my boyfriend and we ate at home.
I was flying to the US to visit friends and family on Thursday, so in the evening, I got online and reserved a shuttle to the airport for that upcoming flight. I paid in advance, which costs $US57 (one-way) because I live three hours from the airport. I could take the public bus there for just around $US10, which I sometimes do, but the trip involves one transfer and takes more like five or six hours. My flight to the US left at 1 p.m., so the 7 a.m. shuttle would get me to the airport just in time, whereas taking the bus would mean leaving the day before and staying the night near the airport.
We spent Sunday at the lake lying in the hammock and picking up trash, and I paid some business expenses.
On Sunday, the town where I live on Lake Arenal held a big lake clean-up. We brought a cooler with snacks and drinks from home and set up our hammocks and blankets near the lake.
The town, and Costa Rica in general, takes keeping the environment clean very seriously, and everyone was out celebrating at the lake with cookouts and music while taking turns cleaning up the shore. We walked around the lake several times but didn’t even manage to fill up our trash bag halfway because there just wasn’t much trash to pick up.
After that, we went to another family-owned restaurant in town for lunch. I got a casado, which is the most typical Costa Rican dish. It’s a big plate of food with seven things on it. You’ll always get rice, beans, and a meat of your choice (usually chicken, beef, pork, or fish, and I chose fish), and then it will usually come with plantains, cheese, salad, and sauteed vegetables. I also had a cup of coffee after my lunch, and the total cost was $US8.
In the late afternoon, we went home to get our kitten and bring her down to the lake for the sunset because we’re trying to get her used to being outside and in a new place. Eventually, we would like to travel with her. We hiked out to a peninsula where you can get a really good view, and she stayed in her basket while we walked. She was nervous at first, but once we set her down in the grass she started to play and enjoy it. The sunset over the lake was perfect that day thanks to the clear skies.
We stopped at the little supermarket on the way home for a few items for the house (toilet paper, coffee, cleaning solution) and spent $US12. Then, once at home, I finished designing my business cards and put in an order to have a box of 100 business cards shipped to where I planned to stay in the US, which cost $US55.
Monday I spent most of the day working and took some time to paint at the end of the day.
On Monday, I worked in my home office all morning and afternoon. I work with a virtual assistant when I need extra help, and I paid her $US60 on Monday for two hours of website work that I couldn’t find the time to do myself.
I was pretty busy on Monday with work so instead of cooking at home, my boyfriend and I decided to go to one of the family-owned restaurants we can walk to for dinner. I ordered tortilla soup and a beer, which came out to $US8. When we got home, I had a little time before bed to work on my watercolor painting, a hobby I’ve been working on for a few months.
Tuesday was a no-spend day, and I spent the whole day working from home to catch up before travelling.
Since I’m self-employed, I have the ability to make my own schedule as long as I deliver work on time. I knew I’d be busy travelling to the US on Thursday and spending time with family on Friday, so I worked long hours on Tuesday so I could get ahead on my assignments. I worked from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., taking occasional breaks to eat.
I didn’t spend any money on Tuesday because I didn’t leave the house all day. While working from home can be isolating if I don’t force myself to take breaks and leave the house regularly, it’s also great for saving money.
Plus, I live in a rural area, so I don’t have access to food delivery services that put a premium on convenience or fast food. When I’m short on time and can’t leave the house, the only option I have is to cook at home. This has forced me to come up with creative ways to save time on cooking three meals per day while also saving money. Meal planning and freezing meals in batches have been a huge help with that.
Wednesday was another long workday, but I did some online shopping and went out to dinner.
I took Wednesday to work a little later than usual too in preparation for my upcoming travel, finishing around 7 p.m. Throughout the day I didn’t spend any money and ate at home, but I just wasn’t up for cooking around dinner time and decided to stop my work and go out to eat.
Where I live, there are a couple of nicer restaurants in hotels that we eat at a couple of times each month, but most of the restaurants are small, family-owned spots that serve typical Costa Rican food and are very affordable. These restaurants tend to offer slightly lower prices for people who are from the town, and many business owners have started treating me as a local. While a glass of wine would normally cost $US6, our favourite spot only charges me $US3, so I was able to get dinner and a glass of wine for $US10.
Most businesses I’m used to shopping at online in the US won’t ship to Costa Rica, and even if they did, I live in such a rural area of Costa Rica that there are extra difficulties involved in receiving packages.
However, every time I have a trip to the US coming up, I inevitably end up on Amazon ordering things I can’t get where I live. I spent $US90 on Wednesday on an Amazon order that I had shipped to the hotel I planned to stay at in the US for things like my favourite brand of tights, new high-end watercolor paints, and a harness for our new kitten.
Thursday was a travel day but I spent almost nothing on food thanks to my credit card perks.
Most people’s spending spikes on travel days but mine usually stays pretty low because of all the free stuff I get with my premium travel credit cards (I have both the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Amex Platinum).
I left my house on a shuttle to the airport at 7 a.m. We stopped halfway through the three-hour drive at a small diner, and I bought some breakfast tamales and a cup of coffee for $US2 total. I also popped in a souvenir shop to buy artisanal Costa Rican chocolate bars and empanadas to give as gifts to the family and friends who were going to host me in the US, which rang up at $US15.
Apart from breakfast, I ate almost entirely for free for the rest of the day. When I got to the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica, for my 1 p.m. flight, I went to the new American Express lounge, which I can access because I hold the Amex Platinum card. They have a pretty good spread of hot and cold food as well as free beer and wine in that lounge, so I filled up on that for lunch.
As luck would have it, my flight was delayed, and I ended up missing my connection in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Southwest rebooked me on a flight the following morning and gave me a hotel voucher. By the time I got to my hotel, it was pretty late, and I was starving.
I didn’t feel like walking to a restaurant, so I ordered Chinese takeout on Uber Eats. I used my Amex Platinum for that as well, which gives a $US15.00 monthly Uber credit that can be used on Uber Eats. My biggest complaint about that credit is it can only be used within the US, but I was pleasantly surprised to realise I could use my $US15 August Uber credit that evening on the dinner I’d ordered, so I only had to pay $US3 for the food I had delivered.
While I was in my hotel that evening, I also booked my flight back to Costa Rica. I’d only booked a one-way to the US because after visiting family in Nashville, I planned to travel to Washington DC for FinCon and then take the train to New York to visit a friend. I now needed a flight back to Costa Rica from New York.
One-way flights from New York to Costa Rica during my dates had been pretty affordable (under $US100), so I hadn’t worried about booking. Unfortunately, when I checked that night, prices had gone up to more like $US200. I decided that was more than I felt like paying, so I used my Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book a flight with Delta through the Ultimate Rewards portal.
Because I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, I get 1.5 cents per point, so I used just over 15,000 points for a $US230 flight. This isn’t the best value you can get from Ultimate Rewards points, but it’s still a good value. Plus, I’d already gone over budget on travel that month, so it was worth it for me to use points.
I made it to Nashville on Friday and played tourist without spending much money.
When I travel, accommodations tend to be what I spend the least amount of money on. This is just personal preference, but I’d rather spend my money on activities, food, or more trips. So, I tend to either stay in budget accommodations like shared Airbnbs or with family and friends.
In Nashville, I was staying with my aunts and cousin, so I didn’t have to pay for accommodation. This also gives me the option of eating in, so I’m not bleeding money on eating out three times per day. I make sure to always bring a little gift with me (in this case, it was Costa Rican chocolate and snacks) to thank friends and family for their generosity.
I woke up at 3 a.m. in Ft. Lauderdale to make it to the 5:30 a.m. flight Southwest had rebooked me on. I had to pay $US10 for a taxi to the airport because the complimentary airport shuttles from the hotel don’t start running until 5 a.m. Once I got through security, I spent a whopping $US20 at Starbucks on coffee, breakfast, and some snacks for later. Weirdly, there are no lounge options for Priority Pass members in the Nashville airport.
Once I got into Nashville, I went to my family’s favourite coffee shop and spent $US7 on an iced cardamom latte and a lemon bar. Then we drove out to Kentucky Downs so I could experience the horse races.
At the horse races, I spent $US16 on two whiskey and Cokes, $US7 on a burger, and $US20 betting on the races. During the final race, I managed to bet on the winning horse and won $US57. So although I spent $US43 on that activity, my winnings meant that not only was it effectively free, but I made $US14.