Comparing the Cost of World Travel to the Cost of Living At Home
Most Americans have this ridiculous notion that extensive world travel is atrociously expensive. The reality of the situation is that the United States is one of the most expensive countries in the world in which to live. If you compare city living in the US vs city living abroad, or rural living here vs rural living abroad, the cost comparison is fairly insane.
While there are obviously expensive places to live abroad (Tokyo, Japan is the most expensive city in the world in which to live, as of January 2011 data), it’s possible to travel for far cheaper than you can live in the United States. Let’s look at some numbers.
Denver, the largest urban area in the Rocky Mountain region with a population of over 2.5 million for the metro area, is fairly representative of the average cost of living for the United States, with a cost of living index of 105 (3rd quarter 2011 data — the national average is set at 100). Since Denver represents fairly close to the national average, and is close to me, I’m going to use it as a baseline example for crunching some numbers.
A one bedroom apartment in Denver averages $977 per month (as of August 2011). The IRS National Standard (used to calculate allowable expenses in IRS collections cases, and also for bankruptcy proceedings and other legal purposes) for food, clothing, and household items for a single person in Denver is $534 per month. The national average car payment is about $400 per month, with operating costs (insurance, gas, etc.) set at $236 per month under IRS financial standards. Add in about $100 a month in utilities, and a $70 per month cell bill.
So, for a roof over your head, food on the table, clothes on your back, and transportation, a single person in Denver is sitting at about $2,136 per month to live. Add in about $100 a month in utilities, a $70 per month cell bill, and let’s just say $100 a month for entertainment, and you’re getting a good picture of what your typical single person in their mid-20′s to mid-30′s, living on their own, is spending to live in Denver: over $2,400 per month.
As a dummy check, I looked up the median per capita income for Denver County, which is just over $24,000 per year. The median household income in Denver is right at $40,000 per year. $2400 a month is close enough to $24k a year for our purposes, and meshes well with the household figure and splitting of expenses across two wage earners.
Using this data as a baseline, let’s compare it to the cost of spending time overseas. I’m going to compare it somewhere I’ve actually been recently: Tokyo. Do recall that Tokyo is considered THE most expensive city on Earth in which to live.
Or is it?
I’m a big believer that one of the greatest joys of traveling is the people you meet, and I don’t think there is any better place to meet people abroad than in hostels. Some hostels are dives, some are very nice places that are basically somebody’s house, such as Jimmyz Backpackers in Sapporo, where I stayed for about 3 whole weeks. Hostels are also really cheap – $15 to $50 a day around Japan, depending on where you are and how nice it is. Most hostels give discounts for longer stays, and so I was averaging about $25 a night to stay in hostels.
$25 times 30 equals $750 per month. That’s already cheaper than our one bedroom apartment in Denver.
On top of saving a couple hundred a month on rent already, consider this: No utilities. Most hostels have free wi-fi. If you’re only spending a month or two in a country, Skype quickly becomes your communication friend. I chose not to have a local cell phone in Japan, and it worked out just fine. But let’s say you want one: $50 a month for basic communication (Tip: Get it at the airport when you arrive!).
So, we’re at $800 a month.
Let’s look at transportation. Tokyo probably has the most efficient mass transit system on planet Earth. Subways and buses take you anywhere you want to go, and surface trains go just about everywhere else in Japan. Japan also has an incredible domestic air transit system, and if you want to travel on open water, you can go long distances on the cheap by taking a ferry.
Using discounted tickets for foreigners, weekend and seasonal deals, and the discounts you get for using electronic tickets, getting around Tokyo becomes a $3 or $4 per day thing, if you go places EVERY day. Call it $100/month. If you commute on particular routes, you can get monthly passes (teikiken) even cheaper.
So, we’re at $900 a month to live in and get around in the most expensive city in the world.
Whoops, I guess we need to eat, don’t we?
All over Tokyo you can find these awesome little family restaurants, usually down weird alleys and twisted back roads, where you can get a bowl of rice with beef strips and vegetables, for example, for about $5. Fresh fruit is expensive in Japan, but staples of the Japanese diet are fairly inexpensive in markets. If you love rice and fish, you can eat even cheaper. Eating out for *every* meal does get expensive – I was pushing $20 per day on average just to eat, but that was by choice. You really can eat for $5 or less per day if you cook for yourself, even in Tokyo.
So, $150 to $200 per month to eat in Tokyo. Let’s add a party night once a week, and give ourselves a $100 per month entertainment and booze budget. Now we’re at $1200 per month.
Did I miss anything? $1200 a month to live in the most expensive city on Earth, and have the time of your life doing it.
Let’s look at airfare. Round trip airfare for me to Japan was about $1600. An American can stay in Japan for 90 days on a single entry tourist visa, so amortized over 3 months, airfare is $533 per month. If you plan to continue traveling around Asia, you can just buy a one-way ticket, which ranges anywhere from $600 to $1000, depending on the time of year. But even at the round trip price, added to monthly cost of living, we’re at $1733 per month.
Yup. $1733 per month. And I mentioned we’re living in the most expensive place on Earth, right?
I realize that this grand equation doesn’t take into account the fact that our example single person has to work a job back in Denver, and that’s not possible when you’re just traveling. I’m fully aware that most people don’t have the luxury of working from anywhere, via the Internet (although I have a firm belief that just about anybody CAN put themselves into that position, but that’s a subject for another post).
So, let’s look at things a bit differently. Our 20 or 30 something single person in Denver makes $25k to $35k per year doing whatever they do. Instead of that $997/month apartment, let’s get them in a house with two other people, and paying $400 a month for rent and utilities. Let’s also ditch the car payment, and let’s ride the bus, live within walking distance of work, buy a beater of a car, or ride a motorcycle (the option I choose — a motorcycle can cheaply be stored when abroad). Let’s also cut back on out cell plan, use Skype when possible to avoid eating up cell minutes, and pack our lunch to work every day.
In other words, let’s live in Denver under a similar lifestyle as we could live cheaply in Tokyo. All of a sudden, we’re not spending $2400 a month to live. Instead, we’re spending $800 or less, and saving $1600 per month.
Do this for a year. That’s $19,200 saved up, cash in the bank, in ONE YEAR.
$1600 airfare, $17,600 remaining. That buys TEN MONTHS living in Tokyo. Your visa won’t last that long. So, you stay 3 months, then go to South Korea. Then Taiwan. Then Hong Kong. Then Manila. Each of these places is far cheaper than Tokyo. All of a sudden, ten months turning into 18 months abroad.
Some people are going to look at these numbers as unrealistic. However, these are real numbers, based on real cost of living norms. For foreigners reading this, YES, that is what Americans blow every month to live the American lifestyle.
Is it worth drastically dialing down your American consumption and materialism for one year so that you can save up the cash to spend a year, maybe even two years, abroad?
Only you can answer that question. But for some of us, the answer is an unequivocal YES.
See you at the airport…
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