My time in India last year showed me how little humans actually need to survive and how little we need to experience real happiness. I was traveling with just one backpack and a few hundred dollars in my bank and yet when I was in Nepal, standing in front of those one hundred school children, I felt more alive, more rich, and more full of potential than any other person alive.
Then I returned home to the United States and felt incredibly homesick in what suddenly felt like a strange and privileged land. As weeks turned into months, those feelings of extreme appreciation began to slip away. But I vowed not to forget. I vowed to continue living a simple life so that I could focus on what mattered.
That life-changing experience tugged at layers and layers of materialistic complexity and egotistical naivety, accumulated as a result of growing up in a middle-class society and having everything. My journey through rural parts of India, Vietnam, and Nepal cut life down to the core, leaving in its wake a stronger, simpler, more compassionate human being.
But it’s one thing to witness the problems of the world and something else entirely to do something about them. To really become an agent of change — to really become a changemaker — we need to practice what we preach. We need to set an example. We need to become the change we wish to see.
I firmly believe that the best place to start is with our own daily lives, with where we spend our money and how we live day-to-day. As I continue transitioning to a nomadic lifestyle, I’m learning how I can live with very little and be frugal with my money.
During my six-month trip, I tracked and published monthly expenses in the Frugal Travel Reports. Those reports documented my attempt to live and travel in three developing countries on just $250 a month, but they also served as a monthly statement of inequality, reminding me how much is wasted in the developed world.
When I got back to the United States, I stopped tracking my expenses and quickly found myself falling back into the old habits of spending unnecessarily. Tracking and publishing my expenses had really helped hold me accountable when I was traveling. Every day when I updated my expense categories, I was reminded why I choose to live frugally and live with less: So that others who need more can have more.
This lifestyle is a work-in-progress and I have a lot to learn and a long way to go. But it’s through being brutally honest with myself — and with you — about where I spend my money that I hope to forge ahead and set an example for a more frugal way of living.
The following is a detailed summary of all my expenses for the month of January, broken down by category with various descriptions about how I lived. If this is of no interest to you, feel free to skip down to the comments.
Since I returned from India, I’ve been staying with my parents. They don’t charge me anything to live with them (they’re just happy to have me back!) but this month I helped out with a few bills and I decided to categorize that expense under housing.
Another place I’ve been staying is at the office where I’m working in Cambridge. My boss said he didn’t mind, so I occasionally spend the night there to save money on commuting back to my parents house ($17 round-trip). There’s no shower, but I bring a change of clothes and wash up in the bathroom.
I also went up to my grandparents summer camp in Maine one weekend this month. The camp isn’t insulated and there’s no running water in the winter, but there’s a fireplace and electricity. It’s incredibly peaceful up there and it's a nice retreat from the city where I’ve been spending a lot of time working.
I split food into three categories because my nomadic lifestyle has me spending a lot of time in cafes and because having a separate restaurant category allows me to see what could have been avoided.
The groceries category contains all raw and unprepared food that I purchased at a grocery store. Since I don’t have my own apartment and I’m moving around between the office and my parents house, this usually means fruits, veggies, salad bar items, and various granola bars and food bars.
Restaurants are the one thing I try to avoid, but I went out with my coworkers for lunch or dinner a few times. Also, if I buy something from a cafe and take it back to the office, I treat it as a restaurant expense and not a cafe expense.
I work well in a busy cafe environment so I’ll often spend several hours there. I don’t feel bad about buying food and drinks because I think of it as a fair exchange for the free wifi, free electricity, and a free place to work. As I mentioned, it only counts as a cafe expensive if I actually stay at the cafe and eat/drink there. If I take something to go, it gets added as a restaurant expense.
Last but not least, I usually eat breakfast and dinner at my parents house on the nights that I stay with them and that food doesn’t cost me anything.
The software development contract project I’ve been hired to do often requires my presence at the company’s office in Cambridge. My parents house in New Hampshire is about 40 miles north of Cambridge and since it’s winter here, riding a bike or walking to the train station isn’t a practical option. Instead, I get a ride to the nearest train station with my mom or dad on their way to work (free; 19km/12mi).
I then take the train into Boston ($6.75; 32km/20mi) and then take the subway into Cambridge ($1.75; 4.8km/3mi). Sometimes at the end of the day my dad is already in Boston for work and picks me up on his way home (free; 64km/40mi). Other times I take the subway into Boston and the train back to Lowell and get picked up there. As I mentioned earlier, several times a week I just stay at the office for the night to save money and time.
On the weekends, I sometimes borrow my parents car. Whenever I do, I track my mileage and then estimate the amount of gas I’ve used. Before I bring the car back, I refill the tank and note the gas expense. On New Years weekend, I borrowed the car for three days, drove around the white mountains, and spent some time at my grandparents camp in Maine ($45; 724km/450mi).
In addition to tracking the distance I traveled for cost, I also tracked the approximate distance I traveled for free, such as the rides from my parents house to and from the train station or being picked up in Boston when my dad was already in the area.
The total distance traveled in the table above includes these “free” miles, so by subtracting the distances from the two expense categories you’ll see that 548km/341mi were cost-free.
I use Aweber to handle my email newsletter and FreshBooks to handle invoicing clients for freelance work. I regularly work with two to three clients every month and having a nice way of tracking time and invoicing them really adds to the sense of professionalism. I’ve been using FreshBooks for a few years now and I'm really happy with them.
My web hosting business, ActualWebSpace, occasionally requires a cash injection to cover monthly server costs. One of my goals for this year is to start generating a regular positive cash flow for this business so that I can not only cover expenses but also start donating some of the income to charity. If you need web hosting, I’d be happy to provide it.
Since my goal is to live and travel as frugally as possible, it only makes sense that I should be learning about travel hacking. I know next to nothing about travel hacking, so when Chris Guillebeau came out with his Travel Hacking Cartel to help teach you everything about it, I realized it was a no-brainer.
I’m only a few days into the product and I can tell you right now it’s worth every penny. If you want to learn more about travel hacking and how you can build up enough frequent flyer miles for a free plane ticket every three months (Chris’ guarantee), I highly recommend the Travel Hacking Cartel. (If you use link above, I get 500 frequent flyer miles!)
I was at a gas station one day when a guy came up to me and said his car was out of gas. He claimed his credit cards weren’t working and he had no cash to buy gas to get home. He seemed sincere and I was a rural area where you wouldn’t expect to find beggars, so I gave him $4.00.
Expenses like postage, ATM fees, mobile phone, domain registration, and tax preparation should all be self-explanatory.
Meticulously tracking my expenses every day this month has really pushed me to be more frugal. I cringe when I think about how much money was probably being wasted in the previous months when I wasn’t keeping track.
I’ve been fortunate to have free housing at my parents house and free rides to the train station to work. My food expense was definitely higher than I expected and I can only imagine how much higher it would’ve been had I not been eating several meals a week at my parents house.
The groceries I was buying were from the Whole Foods store near the office and were a bit on the expensive side. If I had access to a kitchen with a fridge and a stove, I could’ve probably bought more things in bulk and reduced my food cost that way.
Most of the travel was a combination of public transportation and free rides from my parents. I would’ve liked to do more walking or biking, but the weather prevents that from being practical.
Overall, the total expenses for this month are much higher than I’m comfortable with. I can’t stop thinking about how the total expenses for this month would be enough for five months worth of living expenses in India.
Publishing my income is something I didn't do in the original Frugal Travel Reports, but in the interest of full transparency, I'm going to start including it. You'll also be able to track my progress as I focus more on business and financial independence this year.
When I got back from India, my old company offered me a contract project and work from that has kept me busy. This month I also took on several small projects for other clients who have found me online.
The freelance work includes PHP software development, Linux server migration, WordPress plugin development, and editing and proofing. I’m available for hire, so please contact me if you’d like a quote for something.
This year I’ll be focusing a lot more on social entrepreneurship and figuring out how I can combine an Internet-based business with a social project. My end-goal for income is to remove the location requirement entirely and to cover my basic living expenses so that I can focus my time on more social projects.
To that end, I’m working on a few business ideas that I will share with you in a future post. I’m also thinking of returning to India in March so that I can keep my living expenses low while I focus on business development.
Towards the end of next month, I will be getting back on the road and traveling to Florida for the Space Shuttle Discovery launch. (I’ve been invited back as a NASA VIP guest to watch the launch from the press area.)
As I mentioned, I’m also strongly considering returning to India in mid-March and staying there for 4-5 months to keep my living expenses low while I focus on business development. I feel this calling to return... as if my journey there wasn’t complete.
This month I've only posted on average once per week. So many times I fell victim to my own inner perfectionist and the great resistance it held up. For the month of February (and every month thereafter) I'm not going to be afraid to step into the darkness and shine.
Nice, Raam! I used to track my expenses and income all the time. I even had a running average daily cash flow :). Since then I’ve gotten lazy and have sorta slid off the path. I like to see that you’re doing something like this. Inspires me to get back on the wagon.
I used to have a big problem tracking expenses too, but ever since I changed my lifestyle and became more nomadic, I’ve started to see it as fun! I hold a competition with myself to see how little I can spend in relation to my basic needs and my desires. I fill the basic needs and siphon off a little bit to my desires. 🙂
Very detailed Raam. Great article, you’ve given me some ideas on how I can track my own expenses. =)
Thanks Pyrom! Let me know if you have any questions about tracking process. 🙂
I like these reports Ram, I am sooo not as disciplined as you… I know I would save a bunch of cash if I did this, I just hate book keeping… I need a book keeper… I dont like thinking about this lol
The bookkeeping isn’s as bad as I thought it would be. I have a Google Docs spreadsheet set up with all the categories and I simply update the totals as I spend throughout the day using my iPhone or on my laptop.
I think it’s the daily updating that makes it easy. I only spend a few minutes total each day, and now it’s just a habit to keep track of stuff in my head until I can update the category. 🙂
This is awesome Raam! I love reading about what people spend and their conscious behaviour towards money.
I track all of my money here: http://www.fabulouslybroke.com/tag/fb%20budget/
Being accountable on a blog also helps me think: Gee that does NOT look good. In fact, it’s downright wasteful.
Keep up the awesome work
Thank you, Serena! I feel the exact same way about being held accountable and reconsidering things before dishing out money. Always knowing that we have to explain ourselves to everyone who reads our blogs is quiet the motivator! 🙂
I saw your questions on your latest report asking whether you should keep them up… YES! Please do!
I think it’s fantastic to get that kind of glimpse into peoples’ lives… a glimpse into how they’re really spending (and earning!) their money.
Sometimes I think your reports get almost too analytical but then I think of how they’ve subliminally helped me immensely with my own tracking.
I remember the first time coming here and saying “holy crap, this guy goes down to the detail! That’s crazy!”
But now I find myself pouring over my statements and trying to see where my money is being suckled away.
Just recently, I found out that a check bounced from someone so I somehow got the feel. A few months back, I wouldn’t have cared about the $15 loss but I’m totally giving them a call tomorrow and getting that back.
I love the responsibility of it all now – I’m in my new apartment, holding my job and trying to build a business – every little thing counts and knowing that you have to work harder for the bigger wins makes it that much more amazing.
That’s great that you’re able to do so much freelance work – maybe you could figure up convincing your work that you don’t really need to come in which would save a bit of money.
Btw, when you’re in FL, if you’re in central, definitely go to Rock Springs sometime – it’s amazingly relaxing and fun.
When I was in India, I tracked every rupee that I spent. Incredibly, 1 rupee is only $0.02! Tracking things at that detail left absolutely no doubt or question about where my money was going… I knew exactly where it was going!
Doing the same thing here in the United States this past month has been incredibly insightful. It’s really fun to have the responsibility of keeping track, knowing that I will be publishing all of it at the end of the month.
I think spending so much time in India last year also helped me appreciate the value of a single US dollar. If I was willing to keep track of every 2 cents (1 rupee) in India, why shouldn’t I track every penny now that I’m back here?
I’ll definitely try to check out Rock Springs in FL. Thanks for the tip! 🙂
Hi Raam- Just wanted you to know you are an inspiration 2 me on my minimalistic journey!
I track what our family spends, but haven’t posted it on the web! I appreciate you transperancy to the world, and I love your vision and outlook on life.
Hoping to put that inspiration to use, and plan to visit overseas in the next 2 years.
Keep up your great writing!
Thank you, Murphy! Tracking my own expenses is sometimes tough, so I can only imagine the challenge of tracking for an entire family! 🙂
Raam, you’re incredibly inspiring! This should help me get back to really tracking my expenses carefully. I’m looking forward to your upcoming posts on social entrepeneurship. I would love to be able to combine an internet based business with a social project.
Keep up the awesome work! 🙂
Thank you, Peg! I look forward to sharing my social entrepreneurship journey with you and everyone else here on the blog! 🙂
keep shinning Raamji…
Thank you, mom! 🙂
groceries should be separate from restaurants and cafes because those are not food , those are extra luxury items
My groceries are separate from cafe’s and restaurants for that very reason. 🙂
I’ve been meaning to do this, and I think I will soon. I usually get a lot of questions (from travbuddy, a traveling social web site I belong to) about costs in Lebanon….and plus, I know I spend wayyyy more than I need to. Actually, you aren’t doing too bad for yourself, it could be much much worse…and it’s easy to pick out some items that are a dead give away of wasting money, like ATM charges for example–those add up! Do you find yourself feeling separated and forgetting about the values you gained in India the longer you are away from it? I find that when I am separated from some one or some place for some time, I start to feel detached from it completely..but I assume your blogging certainly keeps your memory fresh and doesn’t allow you to become so detached from however long ago you went there, especially if you are thinking about returning.
I looked thru your monthly reports and noticed a recurring theme of ATM charges. These are hard to avoid, especially if you are travelling and living a nomadic lifestyle, but there is an easy solution. Check out the bank account offered by charles schwab bank. It has several benefits.
1. No atm charges, anywhere. (they are charged upfront, but schwab reimburses them to your account wsithin a few days)
2.. It pays interest on the balance (0.25% right now, but this will vary with interest rates)
3.. It comes with a brokerage account that you can fund for long term investing.
We used our schwab account numerous times when we were in Europe and saved at least $50.00 in ATM fees.
I have no vested interest in charles schwab, other than being a satisfied customer for about 2 years.