The best low-cost ways to have a great life

Well, maybe more of an interesting, fulfilling life. Not necessarily “great” in the sense of “leaving a lasting and positive impact on humanity,” more along the lines of “I may not have much money, but I’ve led a life rich in varied experiences.”

See, I’d really love to travel, to sample culture and cuisine and art and so forth; in short, to have some adventure in my life. But I’m not currently making a hell of a lot of money. I find myself fairly often missing opportunities to do fun and interesting things because of the lack of funds. So I was thinking, there has to be some way to scratch these itches even if I’m essentially broke.

Any tips on how to pursue these goals with a very limited budget?

Sometime in the past few years, a study supported the notion that people are far happier when they spend money on experiences rather than things. So, allocate your resources.

Spend time outdoors.

It’s free.

For a small up front cost get a bike or a kayak or a fishing rod. After using these things dozens of times for hundreds of hours the cost per time used approaches zero.

Fishing and hunting is something that can be done cheaply and provides game to eat, which saves on the grocery bill.

If you aren’t up for that, go and try to get a picture of a whitetail deer within 30 yards. I bet it will take you years to accomplish starting from scratch, and you’ll have a ton of fun.

Geo-caching is another one that is fun and nearly free.

If by culture you mean things like opera, theater, ballet or the symphony, you can become a volunteer (perhaps an usher) and see performances for free. Similarly you can volunteer with the local art museum, although in my experience art museums are not very expensive. Some museums are free to the public one day a week or one day a month.

Some really good food is available in inexpensive restaurants. Or you can learn to cook for yourself.

If you live in or near a university town, there may be opportunities on campus to attend cheap but high quality performances, audit courses, use the libraries, and so on.

You may get some good ideas from Mr. Money Mustache.

Travel doesn’t have to be expensive. In 27 countries, I’d be surprised if I’ve spent more than $5,000 in travel costs.

The real pro-tip is to do whatever it takes to find jobs that let you live or work abroad, particularly in areas with low cost of living and strong dollars. If you can swing that, you can have all the travel and good-lifeing that you care to partake in. The good thing is that, as a English speaker, you have mastered one of the most valuable and in-demand skills in the world.

But even barring that, if you can save up for a plane ticket to Asia or Africa, you can live on nearly nothing for months on end in paradisiacal locations. Choose cheap countries, eat local food, and stay in clean-but-cheap guest houses and hostels and you really aren’t going to spend much at all. It’s just the plane ticket that is tough.

I think finding a job, preferably part time, is a big part of it. A job that allows a lot of traveling and free time.

Build networks among hipsters, starving artists, communes, etc to help. Other than that I have no idea.

There is a personality trait called openness to experience. I am not sure if people have written in how to scratch that itch but it sounds related to what you are asking about.

Tattoo the Renegade Consumer mantra on the inside of your eyelids: Don’t Buy It.

I agree, photography is an amazing hobby, and a great way to add excitement to your life. If you set goals like this (although, honestly, in northern California, deer are tame and easy to see up close) you can get a great sense of accomplishment. My birding lifelist is over 200 species now, easy to keep track of on I’m also a lot more aware of the wildlife around me - who knew there were muskrat in the water treatment plant ponds?

An entry level DSLR from craigslist, with a medium zoom (mine is 55-250mm) will suit most every hobbyist wildlife photography situation.

(I took this photo on my first outing with my new camera. Deer are easy!)

About the deer thing: also easy to accomplish in central Illinois where I live. You’ve got to be less than ten feet from them before they get nervous, here.

Get involved in meaningful volunteer work. Ask the local animal shelter if they need help. Get in touch with organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters. Find a cause and support it. I love being involved in pro-vaccine activism. It has cost me nothing but time and guts and made me feel truly good about myself.

Get interested in acquring local knowledge. Every town has some claim to fame. Some people like to be able to visit every continent or all the 50 states. But just as impressive is visiting every county of your state and taking something away from each one. And acquiring local knowledge comes in handy when making small talk. Someone says they’re from Bumfuck and you can say, “Hey, I’ve been there! I ate at a little greasy spoon right there on Rt. 10.” And then the person will be stunned, because that’s their family’s restaurant. Which means you just made a nice first impression.

Yeah! I was going to say explore your place in great detail. Walk everywhere, get to know individual houses, all the hiking trails, all the diners. Make sure you’ve been to the highlights of your own town.

I did this a lot when I was young and itching to travel but had no money. “Well, I’ll just travel right here!” I told myself.

Seconding this. As fun as it is (to me) as a stand alone, the bigger kick is all of the cool spots it can show you in your own town that you never knew existed.

Minimize your lifestyle in the stuff-based world where your gainful employment resides, save all your income you possibly can, and then travel until it’s gone. Rinse and repeat.

It is very easy in most of the world to travel cheaper on a day to day basis than to live in your usual habitat.

You can work at McDonalds for a year, and save $5,000, and that’s enough to live on for another year in some third world countries.

Learn to always live below your means, this one thing will make every difference in how you view your fortunes. Avoid consumer debt at all costs, “It’s a trap! It’s a trap!” More specifically it’s an anchor to pin you down. Seek out the cheapest housing you can abide, remember a coat of paint is cheap and can cover a world of sins. Pay close attention to anything you take on that adds to your bottom line, and will increase your fixed costs. Develop a habit of saving.

If you can manage these few things you can have any adventure you imagine. I’d recommend you set about saving your money for an adventure, go somewhere exciting. Save your money, buy your ticket and go. Where and for how long isn’t so important, just do it. If you manage it once it will expose you to a world of adventure, and a lot of other people wanting and getting, what you seek. You’ll come home with a new view of how free you really are and how much of the world is yours to explore if you want it, and the knowledge and confidence to pursue it.

This is exactly what worked for us and we’ve had a lifetime of great adventures and have no intention of stopping now that we’re approaching retirement age. It can be done, you’re on the right track!

I vividly remember a brief conversation I had with a man while waiting for a ferry in Portugal. He seemed impressed that I had the wherewithal to travel leisurely in my middle-age. I pointed to the lovely countryside around me and said “This is what I bought with my earnings, instead of golf clubs.”

Teach English abroad.

Thanks for all of the great ideas and advice, everyone! Some things I’ve come away with from this thread which stuck with me:

  • Explore jobs which involve travel
  • Don’t overlook the potential adventures in your own backyard
  • A little bit of self-denial in the short term can reap great benefits over the long run