Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

5. Our Finances

As mentioned in the previous chapter, Karen and I lived on a combined budget of thirty dollars per day while we were cycling. We had somehow arrived at this figure prior to leaving Sydney, when we had no idea how much money our travels would require. Surprisingly, we managed to stick very closely to this budget during our entire three years on the road.

In our diary we wrote down every item of our expenditure, every day. Initially this was done with a view to determining where our money was going, and what we needed to cut back on if we found we were exceeding the budget. We continued the practice even after we realised that everything was okay, possibly out of habit, but also because it did help to keep our spending in check.

Thirty dollars per day is two hundred and ten dollars per week. This amount must pay for all of our food, drink, accommodation, drink, entertainment, drink, clothes, drink, maintenance and spares for the bikes, and drink. Technically, we were living below the poverty line, because if we had been on social security while we were cycling, we would have been receiving about three hundred dollars per week, and been able to save ninety dollars of this!

Even though thirty dollars per day is not much for two people to live on, it still enabled us to travel for as long as we liked, as long as we stuck to the budget, and as long as nothing major went wrong. But how did we get the money in the first place?

When the people we met on the trip asked us where the money was coming from, we would say that we were renting our house out and trying to live off the rent. It was a little white lie, but near enough to the truth. The reality was a bit more complicated. We really were renting out the house we owned in Sydney, but it still had a sizeable mortgage over it. The rent from the house covered this, but did not leave us enough money to live on. This came from the rent from a unit which Karen had bought in 1986, a year especially memorable for two reasons. Karen and I met, and Sydney real estate prices took off. I don't think the two things were related.

During our time together, Karen and I have probably developed a reputation for living cheaply, and it is fully deserved. We do live cheaply. For example, we don't go to expensive restaurants if we can go to cheaper ones, we always prefer BYO to licensed, and we mostly cook our own meals at home anyway. We have steadfastly avoided developing an appreciation for fine wine, though lately this has begun to break down. Karen occasionally buys some decent bottled wine as her fondness for Chateau Cardboard matured in aluminium begins to diminish. When we did visit an upmarket restaurant, we were always accompanied by a two-main-meals-for-the-price-of-one voucher obtained from the back of a shopping docket or from special booklets bought cheaply.

Our holidays have been inexpensive too, usually involving some form of camping, except for a month we spent trekking in the Himalayas. While this still involved camping, it was certainly not inexpensive. When we went to the movies, it was usually on a Monday or Tuesday half price night. We bought very few magazines, had very basic wardrobes, always looked for bargains, shopped around and did not waste money on frivolous things.

This is perhaps best illustrated by our wedding. Karen and I were married on Summercloud Beach, south of Sydney near Jervis Bay, in 1990, barefoot. I wore jeans and a white shirt, Karen an all white outfit consisting of a simple peasant skirt and blouse. We had a celebrant, wrote the ceremony and vows ourselves, had our reception catered by the Inlaws at their nearby holiday house, and spent our wedding night in our panel van parked away from the house and down by the beach. Karen even made the wedding cake herself. We spent more money on the honeymoon - two weeks on idyllic Lord Howe Island - than on the wedding, and even then only a couple of thousand dollars. The significance of our wedding day did not escape us, but we did not feel obligated to spend a fortune to demonstrate to others how we felt about each other. We shake our heads in amazement when we hear of people who have spent more money on the flowers at their wedding than we did on our entire wedding and honeymoon!

In short, during our ten years together, Karen and I have watched what we spent, and saved what we did not spend. But three other factors have contributed to our financial situation, all of them major. One is the fact that neither of us smoke, a big non-expense. The other two are cars and kids.

Firstly, cars. At one stage, Karen and I were a two car family, a very expensive exercise. Then Karen was promoted to a position at Coca-Cola which included a company car. Although she loved her little Corolla, she saw the impracticality of keeping it, and sold it to one of our friends. I kept the panel van for a few years as it was excellent for camping holidays, but a time came when it needed some heavy rust removal. As this coincided with registration and insurance, we realised we could save ourselves a few thousand dollars if we simply got rid of it. So we sold my car too. At the time, Karen's work was less than two kilometres away, and mine only eight kilometres, so for a year or two we alternated between Karen using the company car while I rode my pushbike to work, or Karen walking to work while I drove the car.

This system worked really well until one fateful day when Coca-Cola moved into the city. Suddenly, Karen was driving to work every day, which meant I was riding every day, but surprisingly, it was an easy habit to get into (especially for Karen). For over a year I rode to work, and because of this we saved heaps of money.

Undoubtedly the biggest factor in our savings regime, however, was not having kids. We did not realise exactly how expensive they are until we learned that two of our friends were spending more per week on child care for their daughter than Karen and I were spending per week during our entire cycling trip.

Because of our decision to refrain from having children for a while, we were a two income family instead of one, and that income was only supporting two people, and not three or more. During the past five years, all of our married friends have taken the plunge into parenthood at least once, so the issue has been prominent in our lives. Karen had been noticing the increasingly loud ticking of her biological clock as well, so a factor in our decision to travel was the need to do it immediately, and to postpone the decision to have kids (or not) until after we returned, and while we still could. We are still in the process of making that decision, but at the moment Karen's travel bug is biting harder than her ankle-biter bug.

Most of the money we were saving was distributed before we could access it, so we never actually had our hands on it, and therefore did not miss it. Some went in superannuation, some into automatic overpayments on the mortgage for the unit in order to get it paid off as quickly as possible, and some went automatically into the investment life insurance policies for each of us. We finished paying off Karen's unit in 1993, and had been depositing the money normally spent on the mortgage into an investment account.

So that is how we managed it all, a combination of good luck and good management. Neither Karen nor myself wants to work forever and die rich. At the other end of the scale, we do not want to cast off the trappings of the modern world and live in squalor in the woods either. Like everyone else, we just want to reach an acceptable level of physical comfort and financial security, yet still be able to experience as much of life as possible, without sacrificing our time on work we do not enjoy.

After we started travelling, we quickly found new ways to minimise our expenses. We actually found it difficult to get out of "savings mode" and on some occasions had a hard time trying to convince each other to spend some money. I lost count of the number of times one of us would say to the other - "Let's buy it, after all, we are on holiday!"

We would never have been able to survive on thirty dollars a day unless we had gone out of our way to live as cheaply as possible. Some of methods used to reduce our expenditure were known to us prior to our trip, and some we found out about while it was happening. Most of them we still use. Frugality is a hard habit to break.

Karen and I both love to read, and we took advantage of our spare time to read as often as we could. We read so many books that if they had all been bought new, they would have consumed our entire budget and we would have starved to death. Why buy a new hardcover book for thirty dollars when you can buy the same book in softcover for ten? Why buy a new softcover book for ten dollars when you can buy it second hand for five? Why buy a second hand book for five dollars when you can borrow one from a public library for free? Unfortunately, we were seldom in one place long enough to borrow from a library, but we did find some very inexpensive book suppliers - local op shops, Lifeline stores and St. Vincent de Paul Society (Vinnies) shops. They all sell second-hand books very cheaply, with prices often in cents rather than dollars. The money spent at these stores benefits the needy as well, not that we always spent money when we bought books from these places. Every time we went into a Vinnies for books, we would give them our old books as a donation. On quite a few occasions, the ladies behind the counter would often waive the payment on our new purchases because of our contribution.

Of course, books are the not the only goods available at these shops. The other items we purchased there quite often were clothes. A few years ago Karen and I were on a week's holiday at a house on Freedom Island, in the mouth of the Macleay River just north of South West Rocks on the north coast of NSW. We had taken only short sleeved T-shirts with us. Prior to a day's fishing on the river we realised that our arms and necks would be burned to a crisp so we visited the local op shop and bought a couple of long sleeved, collared business shirts. Mine cost two dollars, Karen's one dollar. They were excellent. After we returned to work, I wore mine to the office regularly, and Karen was still using hers on our cycling trip a couple of years later. When the time came for me to buy shirts for cycling, I went straight to Vinnies and bought two for six dollars.

However, clothes and books did not comprise a major part of our daily budget when we were on the road. The two biggest expenses by far were accommodation and food. Camping out in the bush obviously saves a lot of money, but because of safety, comfort and hot showers we almost always used a caravan park if there was one available. This consumed between thirty and fifty per cent of our daily budget, on average. During our first nine months of cycling, we stayed with old friends, relatives and new friends about twenty per cent of the time, fifty five days in two hundred and seventy five. This obviously helped the budget, although we usually bought a couple of bottles of wine to express our appreciation to our hosts, and this was often more expensive than staying at a caravan park would have been. Camping at a caravan park is the cheapest way for a couple to travel in relative comfort. We could not afford to stay at a backpackers' or youth hostel, as these cost around fourteen dollars per night per person. Twenty eight dollars from a budget of thirty does not leave much for food.

Food and drink was our biggest expense, but also the easiest to minimise. Coca-Cola will hate me for saying this, but a cup of tea or a glass of water provides the same amount of hydration as a can of Coke, and is a darn sight cheaper. Still, every so often Karen would allow me to buy a Coke, but even then it was bought in the more economical larger sized bottles, and used the next day as well. Another source of free drinks, although found only a few times, were driver reviver stops. These were often associated with Lions Clubs or the local tourist information office. Some petrol stations also advertise free tea or coffee too, probably expecting that most people will be in cars and that a large percentage of these will also buy petrol. We don't buy any petrol, but we sure drank the coffee!

And so we come to food, the subject closest to Karen's heart. The only reason Karen is so fit, is that she must exercise almost continually in order to keep up with her appetite. If not for her exercise, Karen would be the size of the Goodyear blimp. She loves chocolate, and doesn't mind a piece of cake now and again, and again, and again, but to compensate, she has a fanatical dislike for anything fatty, and does not eat meat very often either. She loves fruit, vegetables, and anything vaguely resembling health food. As I am the total opposite, Karen does all the shopping, and I am force fed lentils, rice, pasta and beans. Not only are these healthy for me, so I am assured, but they are also cheap.

This gives us enough money for an occasional visit to a restaurant, although usually only a Pizza Hut or a McDonalds. We have heard that if a town has less than eight thousand people, it will not contain any of the major fast food chains. Every time we were in a town big enough to have a Pizza Hut, we would dine there, but only at lunchtime during the week when their Four Dollars and Ninety Five Cents-All-the-Pizza-Pasta-Salad-and-Desert-you-can-eat deals are available. Karen and I can eat enough at a lunchtime sitting to last until breakfast the next morning. Our Pizza Hut food choices illustrate perfectly the differences in the dietary preferences between Karen and myself. Karen will have a couple of pieces of pizza, but usually fills up at the salad and pasta bars, finishing off with a couple of cake and ice-cream desserts. The only time I have ever touched the pasta and salad was on my second visit to Pizza Hut in two days, when my stomach could not face fifteen pieces of pizza and three desserts for the second day in a row.

McDonalds, like Kentucky Fried Chicken, was often too expensive for our budget, except for one thing - their thirty cent, soft-serve ice-cream cones. We always availed ourselves of the opportunity for one of these inexpensive little delights. Also, many tourist pamphlets, guides, maps and brochures have similar promotions for free burgers or meals, usually on a buy-one-get-one-free basis.

One habit we did pick up while on the road, and that we are loathe to put into practice in the city, concerns magazines and newspapers. A dollar a day for a paper, or a few dollars for a magazine was an unacceptable extravagance for us, so we refrained from their purchase. However, if we spotted a paper in a garbage bin, and it was not too dirty, we would retrieve it instantly.

Finding a magazine in a bin was a prize indeed. While we could generate little enthusiasm for newspaper articles about politics, war in Europe, or the battle for control of Rugby League, we devoured every magazine we could get our hands on. For much of our trip, we could not have told you the name of the Prime Minister of Australia, but we could have given you chapter and verse on what all the supermodels have for breakfast, what the Royals were doing, and how many women the latest Hollywood heart-throbs had fornicated with in the last six months.

Now firmly ensconced back in the real world, Karen and I rarely buy a paper, but every time I walk past a garbage bin, I cannot help wondering what it contains, and I have to fight an almost overpowering urge to take a peek.

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