I'm 26 and I've Traveled the World. Here's How I Afford it.

September 17, 2019

I've been to more countries than years I've been alive, which often ignites an interesting conversation that revolves around how I afford to travel at such a young age. Recently while back in my hometown, I ran into an old friend while out grabbing beers.

"I just don't know how you did it."

I have a variation of this conversation every time I return. It often turns into a rundown of finances and a somewhat wanna-be inspirational speech, hoping to spark some sort of reaction.

It wasn't long ago I had 0 passport stamps and a bucket list taller than the Niagara. It's less than 10 years later, and I've somehow made my way around the world more times than once. I'm still not exactly sure how I ended up here, but I'll try to explain:

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Travel is my priority.

Everyone who knows Josh & I knows that we are cheap. As in, we’ve never had a fancy date night in the five years we’ve been together, we live in a 500 sq foot apartment, we sleep in the car when we can’t find a place to camp, and if the campsite isn’t free, we probably aren’t staying. This is no secret to anyone who has been following our journey during the last few years.

But beyond that, I’ve put financing travel above a lot: starting a family, investing in my future, buying a new car.

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Sometimes, I get paid to travel.

Yes, it’s true, my job includes travel a few times a year. There are a couple of realms into how this angle works:

  1. Through my blog: With my travel blog, I usually attend a couple of trips every year as a blogger/influencer to promote a location.
  2. Freelance writing: Unsurprisingly, my freelance writing also revolves mostly around the realm of travel, which includes me traveling on assignment for various publications.
  3. Photography: This includes photography assignments as an influencer or freelancer for a wide range of publications.

It’s important to note that although I love what I do and am extremely grateful, it’s hard work. If you’re interested in following a similar career path the competition is tough, the hours are brutal, and you will work with no pay for a long, long time before you see a return. Even when a trip appears to be “free”, a lot of intense work is going on behind the scenes, ask any blogger or travel agent. There’s a funny saying among us in this profession that goes “you haven’t made it until you’ve had at least one mental breakdown.”


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I don’t have debt.

I don’t have college loans, I don’t have credit card debt, I don’t have a car loan. All these things allow me to have a certain amount of financial freedom that I wouldn’t otherwise have. Here’s how I do it:

  1. I went to community college for three years before transferring to a university, where I worked 2-3 jobs throughout all five years of school. My aunt let me live in her house, free of charge, as long as I stayed in college. Scholarships and financial aid helped. I didn’t have a fun college experience. Honestly, I didn’t have any college experience, but to me, it was worth it.
  2. I have a credit card where I earn miles for every dollar spent. I pay off my credit card on time every month and never go into debt for a trip. My credit card miles have paid for a number of airline tickets, both domestic and international.
  3. My car is a used 2009 Kia Sportage that I paid $5,000 out-of-pocket for because having a nice car isn’t my priority, and I don’t want interest on a loan.

If you do have debt, it’s okay. Check out these financial podcasts by my good friend Bernadette, who eliminated $80,000/debt in a year.


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I travel cheap.

I’ve said this time and time again, but I don’t spend a lot of money when I travel. Living in a van road tripping the United States cost an average of $400/month. We backpacked Europe on $20/day. In many ways, I spent less money while traveling than I do at home. Why? Because I love the outdoors. And camping. Both of which are cheap/free most of the time.

Some people don't understand what the term "cheap travel" can actually mean...here are some of the weirdest places we’ve slept while traveling.


How to afford to travel - Colombia

afford to travel tips adventure travel blog: Shalee Wanders

I originally saved $10,000 for travel.

From the moment I sat in my first class at Lansing Community College at the age of 18, I had a plan: to travel for a year after I graduated college. That goal was my driving force throughout the next five years. Ask any of my friends: I obsessed over the idea. Probably completely annoying them with the whole concept.

I finished my freshman year of college with $120 to my name. Let’s just say sometimes it takes a while to get the hang of the whole saving/discipline thing.

But over the next four years, I slowly grew my savings and my motivation only intensified. When I left my support staff job at the college (which also gave me 8 credits/semester), I irresponsibly pulled all my funds from my 401k to complete my savings goal and purchased a one-way ticket to Europe with Josh.


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I also work remotely for a really amazing company, Send it Rising.

Blogging & freelance isn’t my only gig. As I said, the market is tough and honestly, I don’t want to travel all the time. Send it Rising is an Internet Marketing Company where I get to help brands become visible online through SEO, web design, and social media. I love it because I understand first-hand how online visibility can change a person’s life/business.

Our team is small, but tight-knit, and they’re all completely supportive of me buzzing into our meetings from the Highlands of Scotland, or a library in Mammoth Lakes, or a small remote island in the middle of Lake Michigan.


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I wanted revenge. 

Okay, okay, okay. I'm not perfect, and there's a part of me that dreamt of the day I'd wave out the window on the plane to Europe at the parents who stopped letting their kids be friends with me and the teachers who told me I was going nowhere.

Let's be honest, sometimes being petty feels damn good.


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Lastly, I believed in myself.

I talk to people a lot who wonder how I do it, I talk to even more who say they wish they could. The first thing I did was believe it, even though I had no money and no plan.

The second thing I did was adjust my lifestyle to reflect my dreams, both mentally and financially.

The third thing I did was buy some plane tickets, even if they were slightly irresponsible.


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Outdoor travel blog

At any given moment, Shalee is either lost, hunting for ice cream, or obsessively planning her next adventure.

Born and raised in rural Michigan, she began exploring the shores of Great Lakes as a teen, often sleeping in her car to save money. Eventually, her urge to explore pushed beyond her Midwest borders. Today, Shalee shares her tips and stories to thousands of readers interested in adventure, outdoor, and sustainable tourism. Her pack now includes two spunky hiking cats and her partner, Josh. Learn more about her here.

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  1. Gwen Alim-Young on September 17, 2019 at 11:11 AM

    Hi Shalee, it’s your LCC Prof. Gwen Alim-Young. I really enjoy getting your blog posts and reading about your adventures! New Zealand looked amazing!

    • Shalee Wanders on September 19, 2019 at 8:07 AM

      Thank you so much! I’ve done many speaking engagements since your class, and I have you to thank for the confidence!

      P.s. New Zealand is a must! Add it to your list.

  2. Kellen Kautzman on September 17, 2019 at 4:09 PM

    Traveling the world by 26 is no joke and it takes an ambitious, intelligent, dedicated human being to pull it off. Nice work Shalee! #PeteThePuffin #SendItRising #ShaleeWanders

    • Shalee Wanders on September 19, 2019 at 8:07 AM

      Thank you, Kellen!! But I think #PetethePuffin may soon out-travel me 😉

  3. Dan Balasses on September 18, 2019 at 10:55 AM

    Thanks for the tips! I always enjoy your blogs and social media posts. The pictures are amazing!! You’re amazing! I’m sure Josh is too.

    • Shalee Wanders on September 19, 2019 at 8:10 AM

      Thank you, Dan! This means so much.

  4. Alice Karcher on September 19, 2019 at 7:38 AM

    I have no reason to be but still am full of pride for you, Shalee. I mean you are not my daughter nor a past student. Nevertheless l am. However I know the small town you come from, I know and love the people in your family, and I have watched you grow into an amazing woman. I believe you are approaching life exactly right!

  5. Mary Ann Wernette on October 19, 2019 at 10:46 PM

    Ditto what Alice said! I wish you all kinds of success,Shalee, and may your travels continue until you are full of the world.

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