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Travel Turned Me into A Cheapskate, and I Like It

I’ve Learned How to Live Frugal after Quitting My Job to Travel, but Will I Keep It Up Back Home?

South of France fine dining last month: peanut butter and banana sandwiches for lunch in Cannes.

The price tag stopped me dead in my tracks. We were standing outside of the highly-ranked hibachi steak restaurant we had selected for our special dinner in Kobe, Japan. The proprietor had placed a large menu with prices in big unmistakeable numbers. Clearly it was designed to weed out people like me, to prevent the staff from having those uncomfortable conversations with slack-jawed tourists who wandered into their lobby with ridiculous hopes of a Michelin Star experience at an Applebee’s price tag. It almost worked.

During our travels through Japan we’d decided to take a day trip to Kobe to experience their world-famous beef, and I had girded myself for a weighty dinner check. I imagined it would be expensive, yes, but it would also be the experience of a lifetime. I’ll never be here again, I thought. I had not yet at this point in our one-year retirement trip come to my realization that I don’t really need to go to fancy restaurants anymore. The fact that I no longer prize fancy restaurants might be a spoiler alert to the fact that I did sit down to the meal and while it was delicious, it didn’t beat out the best steaks I’ve had back home (U.S.A.! U.S.A.!).

As I stood before the oversized pre-fixe price tag — about $250 total for us both — I was doing the math on how much of a dent this would be putting on our food budget. With a trip budget of $60/day, this would be more than four days’ of meals at one sitting. I thought about how many after-dinner mints I could stuff into my pockets to offset the cost. Unfortunately those candies wouldn’t have enough nutrition to last us even a few days.

We decided to go for a walk down the streets of Kobe to mull over whether we should go through with the meal that would put us well over our daily budget. I had grown up in a ranching family, been an avid carnivore my entire life, and had made a special day trip to come see if the world-famous kobe beef was better than my childhood memories of the family T-bone. But the cost of actually sitting down for this meal really gave me pause as to whether it was worth it.

What a difference a year makes. Back in D.C., I was making decent money and living in a neighborhood with more high-end restaurants than street lamps. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a three-dollar-sign bistro in my neighborhood of Logan Circle. (Fine dining tip: they really hate it when you swing a dead cat at their restaurant.) As a result, we didn’t flinch at expensive dinner checks. We justified it as part of the cost of living in D.C. and our only real extravagance in our spending. While I wasn’t burning hundreds to light my cigars, I just generally wasn’t making daily decisions based on costs. Because my wife and I were both working, we were still living within our means.

But now that we’re both traveling and on a fixed income (fixed at zero), and our profit-and-loss graph is just moving in one direction (losses), I’ve tightened up my restaurant spending behavior quite a bit. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, before we walk into a restaurant, we’ll have already cross-referenced it with our FourSquare app, to see how expensive it is. If the dinner location has three dollar/euro/yen signs in the cost column, it doesn’t even get included in our online search for dinner. Along with checking our dining costs before the bill comes, I also now track our overall travel budget on the Mint personal finance app each day with the unwavering zeal of a cyborg-hawk.

When we get back to D.C., my wife is really going to get tired of me taking her to Popeye’s every weekend, because that will be the only place that comes up in the app search as less than three dollar signs within a one-mile radius of our home. But on this trip, that’s not been much of problem. In fact, I remember being in Saigon and using FourSquare to search for a one-dollar-sign meal close to me. There were so many options I think I nearly crashed their servers. Usually this search identifies a few locations about 0.2 miles away or farther, but if I recall, the first ten listings that came up for Saigon were listed at a distance of: “Just look up. I can see you. I’m the guy waving at you.”

My newly frugal ways go beyond restaurant spending. We watch for and pounce on the temporary 10-to-15-percent sales offered by travel websites for hotel discounts. We’ve also signed up for hotel and airline affiliated credit cards and are diligent about using them instead of cash, to accrue their airline mile and hotel point bonus awards. As a result, we’re booking discounted hotel stays for three-fourths of our bookings, and we enjoyed free stays in Starwood Preferred hotel rooms in Amsterdam, Lima and Budapest based just on our credit card rewards.

A qualifying note about being frugal. There’s a difference between frugal and cheap, in my eyes. And despite the clickbait "cheapskate" headline above, I think it's more accurate to call me the former and not the latter. I am frugal because I watch my spending so I can save money when I need to, and spend on what’s important when I can. A cheap person buys the least expensive item every time and sometimes spends more in the long run because they can’t understand there are times when quality costs money. Similarly, the frugal person doesn’t buy a round for the whole bar, but will be happy to buy a friend a drink and goes out with friends who do the same. The cheap person never buys a round and hopes you forget that you bought him a beer that one time. I’m more frugal now, but I don't ever want to be cheap.

So I’ve gone from spend-y to frugal, and it’s a function of circumstances. Without any income, every purchase is now watched more closely. But when I go back to Washington, D.C., the city that never met a spending increase it didn’t like, will I keep my thrifty ways? Especially after I’m (hopefully) employed and making (hopefully) decent money again.

I hope I do. Not just because it’s good for our household bottom line but because there is a strength that comes from choosing to go without. So when you see me in D.C., please buy me a beer, and I’ll return the favor. Someday.


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