Ask a Genius: How to ditch the American dream



Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Reporter

Myles Ma is a senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance and writes the Easy Money newsletter. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

Published August 22, 2018 | 9 min read

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Some people spend their whole lives chasing the American dream. Roger and Amy Sullivan plan to spend the rest of their lives leaving it in the dust. The couple decided in 2015 to pay their debts, sell their stuff and travel full-time.

The two share their adventures on their blog, Let's Vagabond. We corresponded with Roger while he and Amy were in India to find out how they shuffled off their financial coils to become debt-free full-time wanderers.

Our conversation with Roger Sullivan is the latest edition of Ask a Genius, our regular series of talks with brilliant people.

When relatives ask, what do you tell them you're doing?

We traveled a bunch after the kids started moving out. When we first hatched the plan to ditch the traditional American dream, our relatives and close friends thought we were talking about just another trip. It was not until a year before we left and started to purge that it really sunk in that we were leaving. Vagabonding, in the sense of how we are doing it, is a mindset that is out of the box and hard to fathom for many. We try to explain that we are doing life the same but different. Instead of going to a job regularly we have found and created work we can do remotely. Instead of coming home to chores and a lawn to mow, we explore a new city. It took a while, but our relatives get it now. Our kids got it immediately and were supportive from the start. Their only requirement was that we be somewhere cool when they want to visit. We are trying to talk them into visiting us in Bali for Thanksgiving this year! If they would not have been as supportive, I am not sure we would be doing this.

What led you to vagabonding?

In the fall of 2015, we both read "The 4-Hour Workweek" by Tim Ferriss and our world was changed. The book is a real paradigm-shifter for anyone whose eyes are open and looking. He identifies a movement of what he has deemed the “new rich”. Those who have leveraged time and become free of location. He explains lifestyle design and how living your dreams is easier than you think if you are willing to make some concessions and sacrifices. If you ask most if they want to have a million dollars, the answer 99 times out of a 100 is yes. When you ask people what they would do with a million dollars it is easy to see that what they actually want is the lifestyle they think having a million dollars would bring them. So the question then becomes, “If you could live that way without having to have a million dollars, would you be interested?”

Almost immediately after reading Tim’s book we read "Vagabonding," by Rolf Potts. This is where we learned that travel does not have to be expensive. We learned that we can afford to travel the world and work remotely for less than it was costing us to maintain a very nice middle-class life in the Seattle area. We maintain a nice modest lifestyle now for a fraction of what it cost in the U.S. Without the anchor of “stuff," our monthly expenditures are less than 30% of what they used to be. These two books gave us the knowledge and courage to step out and try something different and that we did not have to wait until our retirement years.

How did you pay off all your debt?

Paying off debt is all about decisions and long-term rewards. Sure, we would love to go out to dinner for sushi and sake with friends, but would it get us closer to leaving? We took the approach of using our disposable income as a “Weapon of Debt Destruction.” We paid the minimum payment on everything but the current debt with the highest interest rate and focused all extra income at that one until it was paid off. Then we moved to the next one and then the next until they were all gone. It goes pretty quickly actually once you make the decision. The hard part was not going out to eat as much as we used to. The end goal of this life made it worth it.

How are you funding your trip?

Amy teaches English online and that is responsible for most of our funding currently. We also have a small income coming in from two network marketing companies we built before we left. Not a huge amount, but a few hundred dollars a month in residuals. I have been blogging for the last three years about our journey and hope to start monetizing that blog soon. All together we average between $2,000 to $2,500 per month. In our current location of Asia, that is more than enough. We are also looking for workaway exchanges where we could exchange 20 to 25 hours of work per week for room and board. It is a great way to really learn and understand a different culture. Working on a farm or something similar is fun and engaging. By American standards it may not seem like much money, but we are making enough to live, travel and even put some in savings for our visits to countries that will no doubt cost more.

How do you budget?

Our budget and expenditures are not that different from what they were in the states. Housing, food, transportation, insurance, communication and consumables like toothpaste and such.

The biggest expense is lodging. We stay in three-star accommodations normally. We have a room with a sitting area, air conditioning, Wi-Fi, a small refrigerator, kettle and a private bath. We budget roughly $30 per night on this. Sometimes in a big city it is a bit more but usually less. When we know we are staying longer we can usually find a two-bedroom apartment with a kitchen and a washer-dryer for $600 to $1,000 per month depending on the area. Food and beverage has averaged about $20 a day. Currently in India we have spent as little as $5 per day on food. The room has generally everything else, so after food, we may spend some money on entry fees to attractions. Of course, we cannot afford to go to a zipline or do a city tour in every location but we plan for the cool ones.

There are a few other things to consider as well, like communication. We buy a SIM card for data and calls in every new country. It is far less to do this as opposed to maintaining a service that will follow us around the world. We have managed to get really great 4G coverage in every country we have been to so far and never spent more than $10 per month for no less than 45 GB of data. We live out of backpacks and have to carry everything we own from one location to the next. Since our space is finite, it is easy to say no to shopping and buying trinkets and souvenirs. If we buy something, we most likely have to get rid of something else to make room. So a new shirt is probably replacing and old one. We also have to budget for traveling. Visas, planes, trains and automobiles. Some countries let us in for free for a certain amount of time and others charge a visa fee. We also maintain global insurance for health and emergencies. So far we have been doing very well on less than $2,000 per month.

What's something you're super frugal about?

We try to be frugal with transportation as that can add up quickly. We try to conquer local transportation and use it as much as possible. In some places it is not necessary to go full-on public transport. Like India for instance. The buses and trains for getting around a city are way too crowded. Uber and the like are so inexpensive we rely on these services for daily transport if we are not just walking. We took an hour-long ride through Mumbai last week and it only cost about $2. Since we have no real time restrictions we can also opt for less expensive travel that may take more time. We get to enjoy the scenery on a train going across the country for far less that the faster alternative of a plane. Traveling from one location to the next can be tiring. Many times our traveling days start at 4 a.m to catch an early flight and it can be eight to 12 hours before we are settled into our next place.

What's something you splurge on?

On travel days we usually splurge and get a nice sit-down meal. We have spent up to $50 on a travel day meal before and that is a lot. We also will splurge if we are in a location that has something that we have always wanted to see or do. I mean, even if you are on a budget, how can you call yourself a James Bond fan and not go to the place they filmed "The Man With the Golden Gun" while in Thailand? We also went to Shanghai Disney the month they opened as we happened to be in town. We also tend to splurge on the occasional bottle of bourbon if we are in a location for a while.

How has your perspective on money changed since you started traveling?

Learning how to live within a certain means changes everything. Money simply becomes a tool. I know that sounds ultra-simplistic and if I would have heard this a couple years ago I would have blown raspberries at the comment. The fact is that money is easy to get and to maintain if you have learned how to use it correctly. You will never have enough if you do not know what you are doing with it. It took us a long time to learn this and many sad lessons, but that is the price of education.

Where do you expect to be a year from now?

Still doing this nomadic thing. This is a big rock and there is still plenty to see and explore. The plan has always been to travel indefinitely. I don’t know if that means a year, two years or only another month. Right now the loose plan puts us in eastern Europe in a year, bouncing in and out of the European Union. I hope that we will have created a decent audience by then and are working with some people, helping them to break free from the 9-to-5 as well. This life is not for everybody but how would you know if you don’t give it a whirl? I am sure there will be a trip or two back home to visit as well since we are hearing something about a possible wedding for one of our boys coming up. How can we say no to a free meal and drinks?

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

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Image: Roger Sullivan