While at work one day in December 2002, I leaned back in my chair, stared at the world map in the hallway and retraced my flight to Houston and 1500-mile drive to Minnesota in my Corvette. Daydreaming about that trip brought back some of the feelings I had experienced during it. The suspense of waiting to see my new toy, the adrenaline rush of driving it for the first time, the fear of being thrown in jail, the joy of getting away with a warning and the excitement of seeing new places – it wasn’t the car I was daydreaming about, it was the journey.
Throughout my life I had always done what was expected of me. I had finished college, gotten a job and rewarded myself with something nice. What was next? I was supposed to buy a house, get married, have kids and start saving for retirement. That was the American Dream. But it wasn't my dream.
I continued to stare at the map and let my mind wander:
If I stay on my current path, how will I view my life when I'm old and gray? Will I be grateful for having had a long career at IBM? Will my best memories be of the times I came into the office early and left late? Or of all of the stuff I owned?
My life is passing me by. I always figured things would just work themselves out. Now I see that's not the case. If I want to be successful, on my terms, I'll need to make some big changes. The problem is I don't have any long-term goals.
Buying a Corvette was a spontaneous adventure. And an expensive one. If I could go back and spend my money on something else, what would it be? I don't want a house, furniture or gadgets. In fact, I don't want anything as expensive as that car. But what else is there? Possessions have only brought me short-term happiness. Before long, the desire to make my life more “complete” through new possessions has always returned. How do I exit this never-ending cycle?
My college trip to Xalapa, Mexico was one of the best experiences of my life. I lived with a family for six weeks. I got to know their city, food, language and culture. On the day I flew home, I felt miserable. I wanted to stay, but I had to finish college.
More recently, on my whirlwind tour of London and Ireland, I saw Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and the Cliffs of Moher. I didn't stay anywhere for more than two days and I didn't meet many locals, but I figured short jaunts were my only option, now that I was an adult. With just two weeks' annual vacation time, long trips were out of the question. But now that I had a good job, I had the means to pay for a short, guided trip. Maybe I could even travel somewhere new and exciting every year.
That night, I browsed the internet for vacation ideas. I found an article about Machu Picchu in Peru and was mesmerized by the photos and description of this ancient Inca city. At the end of the article was a list of travel agencies offering week-long tours of Peru, culminating in a visit to the ruins. The average price was around $2000, not including airfare.
This is the kind of vacation I want. I'll go to an exotic destination and experience the culture. What else is high on my list?
Continuing my search, I stumbled upon a website that catered to “backpackers.” Rather than taking short, expensive tours, they traveled for long periods of time with little money and a backpack as their only “luggage.” This was a culture I never knew existed. To me, travel was a temporary escape from normal life. But suddenly I was reading about people who traveled as a lifestyle.
One article claimed that some backpackers traveled for as little as $10,000 per year. I was skeptical – if it costs $2000 plus airfare for a one-week vacation, then shouldn't traveling for a year cost fifty times as much?
Maybe not. What was the most expensive part of travel? Flying. Backpackers generally traveled by land and only flew when there were no other options. But what about hotels? My tiny room in London had cost $150 per night. Hotels in the US tended to be cheaper, but still cost $50-$100. How did backpackers do it?
I continued to read and learned about backpacker hostels. They typically had large dorm rooms with shared bathrooms. Most hostels also had kitchens, so guests could cook their own food. A bed in a European hostel was $20-$30 per night. And dorm beds in South American and Asian hostels often only cost a few dollars.
Travel doesn't have to be expensive. Maybe instead of spending $2000 on a vacation, I should go backpacking. But if I can only go for two weeks, is independent travel really worthwhile?
Over the next few weeks, I continued to think about travel. Short trips were my only realistic option. To travel for more than two weeks, I would need to quit my job. If I took a long break from a high-tech career, I would never find another decent job. I had worked too hard to get here. My life may not have been perfect, but I wouldn't throw away my career just to take some trip.
Despite all rational thought, I kept finding myself gazing at the map of the world and daydreaming.
Then came a round of layoffs. My department was unaffected, but several people I knew lost their jobs. This had happened a few times before, and the pattern was always the same. After the “resource action,” my manager would assure his team that the company was trying hard to keep our jobs intact. Nobody would believe him. Morale would sink. Gradually, we would put it out of our minds. Then there would be another round of layoffs.
As the dust settled, I put more thought into my future:
I can't expect to stay at IBM my whole career. I could be next on the chopping block, and I need to prepare myself. I can't keep living paycheck to paycheck. Time to build a nest egg. I could save a lot of money in the next few years. If I manage to keep my job.
Other than an emergency fund, what should I save for? My biggest dream is to travel the world. As long as I can only go for two weeks each year, I'll never satisfy my wanderlust. If I really want to see the world before retirement, I'll have to quit. I might sabotage my promising career, but I'm not happy. Isn't my life more important than my career?
Yes! I don't know what the future holds. But I'm going to prioritize living the best life I can, career be damned. I'm going to travel!
It might take a long time to save enough to go backpacking for a year, but eventually, I'll get there. I'll start saving now. If I lose my job, it will be simple to transition to a lifestyle of travel. But even if I don't get cut, once I have enough money, I'll quit.
I'm going to travel the world. That's my long-term goal! Now what?
I had to decide whether to sell my Corvette. Nobody was going to buy a sports car in Minnesota in the middle of winter. Besides, I had only bought it six months earlier – I wasn't ready to admit it was a mistake. Luckily, It didn't cost much to keep the car in storage. I decided to pay it off and hold onto it while I saved for my trip, even though that meant it would take longer for me to leave.
I thought more about my finances and realized that I was spending too much money on stuff I didn't need. I vowed to cancel my magazine subscriptions, stop eating at fancy restaurants and buying CDs, clothes and electronic gadgets. From this point forward, all of my disposable income would go toward my trip.
I thought: Who should I tell about my plans? If word gets out at work, I could get fired. If I tell my friends who aren't connected with IBM, I bet they'll try to talk me out of it. Besides, I don't even know when I'll be ready to go. For now, I'll tell no one.
One day while walking through a large retail store, I spotted some backpacks that were on sale. They came in a wide range of sizes and prices. Maybe if I bought one now, it would motivate me to keep saving for my bigger goal. I quickly ruled out the high-end models that cost over $300 and noticed one that was selling for $150. It was green and had five outer pockets surrounding its main storage compartment. It looked huge and I wasn't sure if it had all of the features I might need, but I bought it anyway. I was one step closer to leaving and my goal of world travel felt more real than ever.
Even though I didn't know when I would leave or where I might go, I was relieved to have a plan for my future. I grew closer to my friends and found it easier to meet new people. I became more productive at my job and my boss even praised me. Simply having a long-term goal in place was enough to lift me from my funk.
After paying off my Corvette, something unexpected happened – I started to enjoy driving it again. Maybe this was because I knew that I would only have to spend a bit of money on maintenance from now on, or maybe because I now saw my car simply as a possession rather than a life-enhancing magic bullet. But in any case, I decided not to sell it until I was ready to go. Keeping my car had an added benefit: nobody would suspect that I was going to quit my job and live out of a backpack while owning a Corvette.