This week we're in Lake Tahoe, having just hiked 120 miles of the Tahoe Rim Trail, and we're preparing to host an adventure storytelling event tonight before working the Tahoe 200 at the end of the week. After that we'll head back up to Seattle before going to Portland, Bend, Moab, and then New Zealand in October. Earlier in the year we went to Calgary and the Sunshine Coast, and if things pan out, we might make it to Mexico by the end of 2018 as well.
A question that we were asked recently is how we afford to do all of this kind of stuff, and I've been thinking about how people afford to live their dreams a lot recently. Budgeting may seem a bit unrelated to all this travel and adventure and stuff, but it's nuts and bolts, and it's come up in more than one conversations recently.
I've got a couple of hours this afternoon, and I wanted to organize a few thoughts around finances specifically because I think it's helpful to provide real life examples of how people do the kind of thing we're doing - leaving a traditional full time work path in order to travel, play outside, and start creating your own thing from the ground up - without venture capital, a trust fund, or a wealthy benefactor.
We've pursued this kind of lifestyle for about 3 years now, and in that time it's been really helpful to have some role models ourselves (thanks Urbanski's!). I don't have any magical secrets here, but I do want to take a minute to outline the basic strategy we've been using to make this work. It's easy to make assumptions that this type of lifestyle is inaccessible to most people, and it's helpful to make things concrete and point out that there are real-world ways to figure it out.
I'm calling this a Dirtbag's guide to the financial hustle.
1) Absence of debt and marketable skills create a massive amount of freedom, even if your income and savings aren't huge.
For a bit of essential background, the life situation that Angel and I find ourselves in is a pretty good one, from the perspective of an entrepreneur.
We aren't independently wealthy, and we can't afford not to make enough income to meet our expenses for more than a couple of months. We aren't willing to take loans out to finance our lifestyle because we don't want debt, so we have to figure out a hustle from month to month so our income reliably meets our expenditures.
But, after 15 years working and saving diligently in our careers, we don't have much current debt, and we have a fantastic safety net because we have highly marketable skills. I'm a nurse. Angel's a nurse practitioner. If our given hustle isn't working, it's really easy to pick up shifts in order to quickly make enough money to survive.
For me, that's a big part of the reason that I feel comfortable enough to take the chance on figuring out how to make money in other ways. If it doesn't work out, we both have solid fallback options.
2) There are only 2 difficult steps: a) believe you can figure it out, and b) commit to hustle until you do.
From a position like ours, my personal experience has been that the most difficult steps in making a transition from a stable, long-term career path into something creative, entrepreneurial, and travel/adventure-based have been the psychological steps required.
I'm personally a creature of routine who likes stability, and it hasn't come naturally to me to give up a traditional contracted job in order to drift around and figure out how to survive. So the first difficult step, for me, has been to believe that I can figure it out. That somehow or another, I'll figure out how to make enough money to survive. Somehow, Angel has that instinct, so she's been the rock.
And related to that, it's difficult not to just retreat back to the familiarity of a comfortable job. I'm a nurse, I can work whenever and where-ever I want. There's a bit of hyperbole there, but not much. But in order to do what we're doing - traveling, creating a business, maximizing our flexibility - we have to be committed to the hustle of making it work across the long haul. That requires a continued commitment to the idea that we're going to figure this out - how to make a passion project pay in a way that's sustainable. That confidence might not always come naturally, but is reinforced the longer we do it, and the more years we manage to make ends meet living a non-traditional lifestyle.
3) The goal: lower expenses to an amount you can meet with income.
Because of our lack of debt, our basic equation is that, in order to keep Boldly Went-ing, we just have to figure out how to keep our expenses lower than our income. The way we've been achieving that, I think, is probably what you'll find most helpful here.
In order to achieve a balanced financial equation, there are really only two things you can do: drop your expenses, and increase your revenue. This is where the rubber hits the road: the practical answer to the question of "how we afford to do what we're doing." How do we make more than we spend while also traveling around, making up a business, hiking a bunch, doing what we want?
The two categories of actions we take include dropping expenses we can live without, and maximizing the number of revenue streams that we can cobble together.
a) Dropping expenses
For us, in 2018, dropping expenses has meant the following things:
b) Maximizing revenue streams.
I mentioned above that we haven't had traditional contract-based full-time jobs for 3 years. But that doesn't mean at all that we don't work. In fact, we work more now than when we would if we did have normal jobs. I'm almost sure of it. It's just that the jobs take the form of a series of side-hustles. And they're organized so that we can do them in a way that's compatible with a peripatetic lifestyle.
While for most of our lives, our sole income streams were traditional jobs, in 2018, there have been at least 10 ways that we've earned money. In roughly descending order, from most to least lucrative, here are our the ways we've made money this year (not including investments because we’re not planning to touch those pre - retirement, so the money’s not “real” yet for us):
None of those revenue streams is big, but pieced together, they're enough to allow us to travel around, work on establishing the business, and work on creating more revenue streams - writing a book, trying to build bigger events, finding more sponsors, and maybe picking up more fun side jobs that don't feel like a burden.
What’s life feel like in that context? Pretty damn flexible. There's no one job obligation that feels like it truly "owns" us. We have to figure out how to make money to keep doing what we want - but it's the "keep doing what we want" idea that feels like it's the focal point of our life, rather than the "making money" part. Life feels creative, and a bit unstable, but not in a threatening way because we always have nursing as a fallback. Our taxable income at the end of the year will be really low, but I definitely don't feel poor, because we have figured out so many options. And I think a variety of options in life is the true opposite of poverty.
Mainly, life these last few years feels like investing in something we believe in with this project - something really personal, creative, and cool.
Will our income streams be different next year? Almost definitely. Maybe we'll find some online income? Or take different side jobs? Or just work more at the hospital? Or less? Who knows? It's weird - it almost doesn't matter, because it's not the point. The point is finding out a way to afford to do what we're doing - traveling, building a business, working on passion projects, creating something cool in the world that we believe in.
If you like this post, you'll also like my book The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. It's a fun guide like this, but for your entire existence.
Another stream, which we also can’t continue to do this without is Patreon - where lots of individuals chip in a few bucks to help keep our podcast, events, and other content happening. If you listen to other podcasts, a lot of them have entire, large production teams. Our team is us and our patrons. We hope you'll check out our page - it's a great place to both help out concretely with a couple bucks a month, and to provide feedback and advice about how we can make what we're doing more valuable!
A couple of days ago, Angel and I had beers with our friend Sara. She hiked the PCT the same year as us, and finished on the same day even, but we met for the first time at our last Seattle event a couple months ago. Our conversation - like so much of what happens through Boldly Went - centered on the importance of the outdoor community. This morning as I was thinking about that topic I re-read this post from a previous blog, written last year. The PCT, all you people, possibilities, the things the outdoors community contributes to the world: It's all meshing together into nostalgic goodness, so I wanted to repost this blog here, with special thanks to Anish and the Urbanski's, and of course Sara, for being such inspiring people. I think it's a helpful reminder that it's the people we surround ourselves with that let us live the dirtbag dream.
In the last two years I've thought a lot about the role that friends play in my life. When Dad was sick and then passed away, friends came out of the woodwork to support us, provide encouragement and free therapy, and offer some perspective on how they moved through similar periods in their lives. On the PCT, especially after Northern California, friends kept us sane, dragged us along and helped us get through a grueling push to the border with both emotional and material support. When we were traveling in Latin America, friends from home were the thing that I missed the most. And when we were back in the States, friends let us crash on couches and in their yards for basically two months of free accommodation.
I've realized for a while that, in order to do cool things in life, it helps a lot if you surround yourself with cool people: that is, if you make friends with people who have done the things that you want to do. Since being back in Seattle, I've been reminded that the community here makes an irreplaceable contribution to my life, because the Northwest is filled with smart, interesting people doing amazing things.
But it's true that there are several responses one can have when surrounded by smart, interesting people doing amazing things. Broadly speaking, one can be inspired, but one can also become jealous, and develop a sense of inferiority when one hasn't achieved a similar level of amazingness.
Haters gonna hate pretty much everyone
This came into clear relief yesterday when one of the most amazing people in the Northwest, Heather "Anish" Anderson, posted that she'd made the mistake of reading the comment section of an article that the Seattle Times recently published about her. (If you haven't heard of Heather she's one of the most accomplished outdoor athletes alive - holding speed records on both the PCT and AT thru-hikes, something no person, male or female, has done before. You should click here and read the article. It's better than my blog, and she's way more interesting than me.)
I checked it out, and predictably enough, half the commenters were a basket of deplorables with a list of reasons that Anish's records were either reflective of moral failings or not that impressive. While I don't make a habit of reflecting on the comment section (Never read the comment section, and definitely don't perseverate on it enough to write a blog post about it!!), immediately after reading I went on a hike up the PCT (appropriately enough), so I spun on this particular cesspool of transparent bitterness, ignorance and jealousy for a few hours.
And more than many, this comment section was exactly that: transparent bitterness, ignorance and jealousy. Gut responses from people who don't know Anish, aren't hikers, and clearly didn't comprehend what they read in the article, if they even read it. There were a bunch of comments, but maybe the most elegant piece of trolling was from "lordofflys":
"I call it "an insatiable desire to get your name in a record book". There are a lot of people in the Great NorthWest [sic] who prefer the outdoors to a sedentary lifestlye. [sic] Get in line."
Haters gonna hate, and stupid haters gonna hate stupidly. Those who know Heather know that she is humble to a fault, and is an intense introvert who seems almost embarrassed when she talks about her accomplishments.
Must be nice
But to be honest, I have to admit that I do kind of understand the impulse that arises when confronted by another person's accomplishments, to explain away what they've done. It seems like a natural defense mechanism based in insecurity, designed to help us feel okay about our own situations: I hurt my knee in college so I can't..., My parents didn't have money so I can't..., I wasn't born beautiful so I can't... And anyway I wouldn't even want to because those accomplishments are wrongheaded and meaningless.
We could call it the "must be nice..." impulse, and probably everyone has felt it, even if most of us have a filter that kicks in somewhere in the steps between reading a news article, creating an account, logging in, and gleeking our frothy bitterness all over the unwitting internet public. I've said it myself, and Angel and I have had it directed at us more than once - particularly while we were traveling. "Must be nice to not have to work for a living," "Must be nice not to have any kids to worry about," "Must be nice to have that kind of money."
The thing about "must be nice" is that, along with pissing off the person it's directed at, it is self-defeating for the person who says/thinks/feels it. The rhetorical equivalent of "must be nice" is "you can do that, and I would like to. But I can't, because...".
Even if the "because" in that statement is followed by some truth, it's useless. It is just a statement of the conviction that you are in a different category from people who figure out how to do the things they want in life. They did that, I can't, so they're stupid. It's possible to sit with that attitude, but it doesn't get you anywhere.
Spirit Animals and Role Models
And that brings us full circle back to the value of cool friends, because it isn't just about surrounding yourself with the right people - it is about taking the right attitude towards them. Specifically, it's about figuring out which lessons you can take from their lives and apply to yours, rather than seeing their situation as foreign, and therefore irrelevant, to yours. Philosophically it's about seeing yourself as having influence over your situation, and about seeing relationships as symbiotic - having the potential to improve both your life and the other person's.
(I'm genuinely not sure why this clicked in when it did, but for me that realization hit almost exactly when I turned 30. That was a time when I stopped feeling jealous about Angel's ability to get a job easily and make a decent living, and decided to retrain to healthcare so I could do the same. And it's a time when I decided to stop feeling jealous about healthy, fit people, and to start triathlon training, which across time ended up transitioning into ultramarathons, running across Spain, hiking the PCT, and about a million other things I never thought I could do in my 20s, and I still kind of can't believe I've done - none of which I would have been able to do without the influence of friends, incidentally.)
A way to express that truth is that its better to look for role models in life than rivals. This was actually one of the reasons the particular comment section under discussion got me spinning. Besides the fact that Heather's a friend and an incontrovertibly good person, along with the humble marmot, she's basically my spirit animal. The type of life she's carved out, and the things she's accomplished are inspiring to me, and the article about her got me thinking about life possibilities - more time outside, less time spent earning money I don't need to buy things I don't want. More adventure and accomplishment, less resignation to life. The commenters are the incarnation of the buzzkill part of the brain that tells you "that's not possible".
A Personal Case Study on Finances
A simple, practical way to apply the role model idea is that when confronted by a person who has done something amazing, or better, something that you're jealous about, better than saying "must be nice..." is to ask the question, "How'd you do that?" When you ask it out loud, you almost always learn something valuable, even if the person's context is dramatically different from yours.
For a personal example, we have a couple of friends, Matt and Julie Urbanski, who appear to have their act together as much as anyone I know. And while they're incredibly lovely people, I have to admit that in some ways my gut response when I think about their life is jealousy: particularly in the fact that they have only spent intermittent periods of time working since college, and have traveled for periods of up to three years at a time without traditional jobs. They both have degrees in finance, and because I'm completely ignorant of that field, my gut response to their situation is that they must have been able to save like a million dollars from a few years of work and so now can do what they want. Must be nice, but I can't make that kind of money as a nurse.
But, a few weeks back, they posted a helpful article on their blog about financing their lifestyle, and it prompted me to think more concretely about their situation. I know they live frugally, have a few sources of income that are portable wherever they are in the world, and basically have a huge sense of freedom and possibility in life despite the fact that they have a kid and careers and lots of goals that people tend to see as prohibiting travel. But I didn't know anything about the concrete financials behind that, and I was assuming that they were in a place financially where we weren't.
So, I asked specifically how they did it: how much money did you have in savings when you quit your jobs, and how much do you feel like is "enough"? While I won't go into specifics, I was surprised to learn that when they started traveling their net worth looked very similar to ours now. I also learned pretty quickly that a key difference between us and them is that their sophisticated understanding of the way that investment works is what allows them to feel a sense of financial freedom and control as much as the actual money they have in the bank.
Their situation is significantly different from ours. I personally like having a home base in Seattle, while they seem to be persistent drifters. I'm generally happy with the working life, as long as I'm doing something meaningful, and while I want to be able to travel I see myself doing it for nearly as long of periods of time as them. But I do want their sense of financial freedom and control, and I do want to feel like I'm able to fully decide when and where I want to work, and when and where I want to travel, in the way that they do. And so, as we're making financial planning goals across the next few years, I'm going to be using them as a key resource rather than an object of ignorant bitter envy. They're way better role models than rivals (especially since they kick our butts in most important areas of life)!
And so, to summarize...
Don't read the comments, but more importantly don't write any comments yourself.
I really believe that to do cool things, you have to surround yourself with cool people. But more so, you have to recognize that those cool people can make your life better, and shouldn't be targets for your bitter frothy gleek.
If you like this post, you'll also like my book The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. It's a fun guide like this, but for your entire existence.
We believe in the outdoor community's ability to produce better people so much that we're dedicating our lives to building it up through our events and podcast. Come out for live interactions with so many cool people you won't be able to stand it, or soak up their wisdom through your headphones.
Or, you know, just sign up for our email list for weekly notifications about more stuff like this.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.