Top experts agree, New Zealand is frikkin' rad, but there’s no getting around the fact that it isn’t the cheapest place in the world to visit. It's a couple of small islands located a billion miles from anywhere, with a tourism economy and excellent education, healthcare and welfare systems funded, in part, by taxes waged on the masses of visitors that find their way there annually.
After about two and a half years of life and travel there, I would estimate that costs on the ground are generally similar to those in Canada and the pricier parts of the US, which is actually slightly less than most other island countries in the Pacific. But if you tack on the price of a flight to get there, a trip to New Zealand quickly starts to seem cost-prohibitive for budget travelers from the English-speaking world.
Personally, I feel the pain of that fact intensely. New Zealand is my favorite place for a whole bunch of reasons. Angel and I lived there during a formative time of life, in our early 20's, and fell in love with the people and the landscape. We visited again in our early 30's when we were in the best shape of our lives for outdoor pursuits, and saw hundreds of miles of stunning trail that we hadn't previously explored, whetting our appetites for more of the country's infinite beauty. And we visited again last year in our late 30's, and were overwhelmed by waves of nostalgia and desire to spend more time there. But like a beautiful night out at an expensive restaurant, it may be well worth the cost, but the cost is undeniable.
The last several years, we've made month-long trips to Mexico a winter routine, but this year we replaced that trip with a two month visit to New Zealand. I haven't broken down the cost comparison meticulously, but roughly speaking, on a per day basis, we spent twice as much per day in NZ as in MX, and the cost to fly there from the West Coast of the US was three times as high. In addition, in MX we definitely live more high on the hog - eating out most meals and staying in hotels and Airbnb's the vast majority of nights. In NZ we camped as much as we could (about half the nights we were there), and most frequently bought our food at groceries.
But I just love New Zealand so much, and it's totally worth the cost, so I want you to go there. So, since the trip, I've been putting together this brief guide to navigating finances on a visit to the country. I want you to have a sense of where costs lie, and where you might save money. New Zealand is a relatively expensive destination for a budget traveler, but if you plan correctly it doesn't have to be that expensive. You can totally figure it out.
(All costs listed are in $US and are approximations based on our most recent trip, in December 2018.)
Things that cost a lot, in the grand scheme of things
New Zealand is a long way from everywhere else, and is an island in a big ocean. There are some things that just will cost a lot of money there, inevitably. To give you a picture, here's my rough list of pricey things:
Places to save money
After all of that bad news, there is plenty of good, and there are ways to avoid breaking the bank on a trip to New Zealand. The country is a tourist economy, it's true, but for decades it's also been a top destination for backpackers and budget travelers, so there is well-developed infrastructure and cultural support for this kind of thing. Kiwis are awesome, frugal people themselves, and they have made it possible to travel like an awesome, frugal person when you're there.
So here's a list of the places where you can save money while traveling in the country.
New Zealand really is one of the world's great places, and that reputation has gotten around. While the infrastructure is in place now for luxury travel, and that does have the potential to blow your budget, it really doesn't have to. Budget travelers can absolutely figure it out. The culture and scenery are worth the cost of admission at virtually any price, but you can travel for long periods of time on $1500 - 2000 a month if you plan correctly. I hope you do!
If you're the type of person who believes that even if the best things in life (like New Zealand) aren't free, but can be figured out on a budget, you're going to love our new book, "The Dirtbag's Guide to Life: Eternal Truth for Hiker Trash, Ski Bums, and Vagabonds." It's kind of like this article, but is aimed to help you figure out an entire life of adventure on the cheap. Check out the webpage, or if you prefer buy it on Amazon.
If you’re the type of person who daydreams about:
it might be worth thinking about New Caledonia.
I’m not sure if you can do those things there, but it seems like you probably could.
If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a small group of islands and islets in Melanesia - forming a roughly equilateral triangle with Australia and New Zealand, where it is the Northeasterrnmost point. It’s not that far from Vanuatu, if that helps.
If you aren’t already there, it’s almost definitely a long way from where you are. We booked an AirBnB on a woman’s catamaran in the main harbor in the capitol, and she told us that a lot of people arrive by boat and fly home, ditching their vessels because it’s too much trouble to get them back to Europe or the United States or wherever they’ve drifted in from.
It's pretty sleepy, but it still does a healthy tourist trade with English speakers and people from mainland China and Japan. The main group of foreigners, though, are French. The proper official name is Nouvelle Caledonie, because since 1853 the French have put themselves in charge of things. Along with a lot of blue water, the islands have one of the richest nickel deposits in the world, and the white people there taking it are primarily francophones.
Originally though, it was a Melanesian paradise - Kanak, specifically. People have been there for 3000 years, which is pretty incredible when you think about it. They still make up 40 percent of the population, and their culture is alive and quite visible all over the islands. As is the case everywhere I’ve ever been in the Pacific, they seem to exist in a uneasy detente with their colonizers. Just before we arrived in November 2018, there was a national referendum on whether or not to remain a French colony. Kanak flags were flying everywhere, and only 56% voted to stay.
I didn't know any of that before we arrived, and our own trip to the country happened mostly on a whim. We were looking for flights between the South and North Island of New Zealand, where we were traveling from our home in the US, and noticed a cheap flight to a place called “Noumea”. We Googled it, found out it was the capital of a country we’d never thought much about, and decided “what the hey”.
We were only there for a week, and I’m by no means an expert, or even a novice, but we did dig around enough to function something like scouts for others out there who might be interested in paying a visit.
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!
For the last million or so weeks I've been tapping away on my computer working on our upcoming book, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. Here's a first (still rough draft) excerpt from the introduction for you, addressed to the question of what a dirtbag is, and who the hell cares. With special thanks to Heather Anderson for being our spirit animal.
I'd love to hear what you think. Does anyone care about the humble dirtbag? People respond strongly to the term, and it's over-applied, but in my opinion there's not a better word to describe a character that, in my opinion, is a particular type of underappreciated countercultural icon.
If you're interested in getting updates as the book continues to develop, sign up here.
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.