In 2012, we became relatively broke (but debt-free!) college graduates. We were wide-eyed and ready to take on the world. Fast forward a couple years to 2014, and somehow college had become a distant memory. We were about to get married, and we were each pretty set into a routine at our full-time jobs. Adulthood had really taken over.
We didn’t hate our work (actually, my job as a high school physics teacher was pretty rewarding), but it was tough for either of us to imagine the typical path of settling into one role for decades at a time. Even a few years with the same employer can seem like an eternity when you’re in your early 20s. We needed a change of pace, and a week-long vacation wasn’t gonna cut it.
That’s when we had a bit of an unusual idea for our honeymoon: What if we quit our jobs and bought one-way tickets to Hawaii? In the summer of 2015, that’s exactly what we did. Six months later, we came back home with a lifetime’s worth of experiences…and about the same amount of money we started out with — we didn’t end up depleting our savings at all.
The Prep: Creating a Financial Foundation
Most people don’t have the courage to just randomly stop working and move to a new place without any plan. Actually, we didn’t either. But what we were starting to learn is that money in the bank can be a pretty decent substitute for courage.
We’d been saving over 50% of our income since graduation by continuing the college lifestyle into young adulthood. Between each of our salaries of ~$40k per person, plus a few (much smaller) side hustles, this was starting to add up to a real amount of money.
Even still, we decided to delay our 6-month “honeymoon” nearly 8 months. We didn’t feel comfortable jumping into our Hawaii adventure the moment we said “I do,” and as a schoolteacher, I didn’t want to abandon my students in the middle of the year. In that extra time, we buckled down and saved harder than ever.
In addition to saving and investing, we prepared by downsizing our possessions as much as possible to reduce storage costs while we were gone (and raise some extra cash in the process). We listed our furniture, bicycles, car, and other bulky possessions on platforms like Craigslist, Facebook, and eBay. What we ended up keeping was small enough to fit in my mom’s dining room, which she graciously sacrificed for half a year (thanks, Mom!).
Another thing we did was rack up cash and travel points with credit cards before leaving home. When you charge your normal expenses on rewards credit cards and pay the bill in full each month, you can score free hotels, flights, and cash — without paying any fees or interest. Many cards offer significant intro bonuses when you first sign up and meet certain spending requirements, so we did several of those before the trip.
The Setup: Our First Two Weeks on the Island
We flew to Hawaii with no real plan. Neither of us had ever been to the state at all, but we were pretty sure we wanted to live on the Big Island. When we actually got there, we immediately fell in love with its small towns, low population density, kind people, and surprisingly cheap rent.
The only problem is that we didn’t bother to find a place to live — or even transportation — before packing up and going. We arrived on the Big Island and moved into our temporary home: the back seat of a Nissan Versa Note, our rental car. This wasn’t going to work for long, but it got us through a few nights.
By pounding the pavement every day — browsing Craigslist and checking in with property management companies — we quickly found an amazing two-bedroom apartment across the street from the beach in Kailua-Kona. We could hear crashing waves from the living room. The rent? Just $965 per month (including tax) with a six-month lease. We snapped up the deal immediately and happily moved out of the back seat of our rental car.
Before this, we were used to living in much smaller, one-bedroom units. We actually ended up never stepping foot in the second bedroom of this apartment, and in retrospect, we could have kept our expenses even lower by just taking on a roommate. But we wouldn’t figure out that strategy until we moved into our next home…and that’s another story for another time.
The next order of business was to get some wheels of our own. There was no way we were going to pay $40 a day for a rental car for six months, and the Big Island is a big island — we did need a car. Our goal was to find something that was fairly priced, got decent gas mileage, and could be sold six months later for almost the same price we paid for it.
Again, we pored through Craigslist posts, and we found our car — a cherry red 2000 Mazda Miata — on the first day of looking. An otherwise totally impractical vehicle, this two-seat roadster was perfect for the new life we were setting out to live. It would be just the two of us on this little adventure, and this was the right car for it. After a quick test drive, we bought it for $4,500 cash (which is a whole ‘nother story).
The Expenses: What We Bought — And What We Went Without
Scared of letting the money we had so diligently saved over the previous few years just slip away, we found ourselves living more frugally than ever before. Interestingly, living frugally turned out to be even easier in Hawaii than it was back home.
Knowing that we were going to get rid of everything in six months, we were hesitant to spend money furnishing the apartment. Instead of buying a mattress, we bought the thickest mattress topper we could find and put it directly on the floor (in retrospect, this was probably a little overboard on frugality, but it’s what we did). We skipped the couch entirely, opting for a $50 card table and chair set from Walmart instead.
The house was pretty barren, but it was really just a place to cook, bathe, and sleep. The world outside our walls is where we wanted to do most of our living.
One thing we did splurge on immediately was a portable air conditioner for our bedroom. Hawaii apartments don’t usually have AC, and I just can’t sleep in a warm room. This also ran up our electricity bill since the house had practically no insulation, but everyone has that one thing they just can’t live without, right?
With so much natural beauty all around us, it was pretty easy to keep our entertainment budget close to $0, with the exception of gas for the car. We bought our groceries at Costco and Walmart, and we ate enough rice to go through a whole 25-pound bag in 6 months.
While we stretched our food budget with ramen noodles, beans, and soup, we also cooked plenty of fresh veggies and even fancy vegan meats. Overall, we ate pretty healthy. The key was to cook 95% of our meals at home, which is much easier when you don’t have the stress of full-time work to drive you toward convenience foods.
Our monthly expenses for two shook out something like this:
- Rent: $965 after tax (across the street from the beach!)
- Electricity: $150 (Hawaii has some of the highest rates in the US, and the air conditioner didn’t help.)
- Water: $0 (included in rent)
- Food: $450 (Thanks, Costco and Walmart!)
- Car insurance: $35 (liability only)
- Car maintenance: $25 (We fixed a few car issues ourselves with the help of YouTube and had standard maintenance like an oil change.)
- Internet: $30 (Introductory offers are great when you don’t plan to stay put for long, and of course, we used our standard tricks to avoid paying for TV.)
- Cell phone service: $60 (We always pay cash for two-year-old phones on eBay so our bill isn’t inflated by financing a brand new depreciating asset.)
- Gas: $125 (We were exploring a lot, but our Costco membership paid off here.)
- Health insurance: $0 (If we weren’t eligible to be on parents’ insurance, it would have been around $300 for two high-deductible plans at the time. Now, prices are even higher, but other options exist. ACA subsidies are available when your income is low, as it is when you’re not working full-time, and Hawaii in particular also has expanded Medicaid.)
- Entertainment and miscellaneous stuff: $40 (Like I said, most everything we did involved just going outside and enjoying nature!)
- TOTAL: $1,880
Nearly $1,900 per month may sound like a lot of money, but keep in mind that this is the all-in total cost for two people to live, and it replaced our at-home expenses in Florida. It wasn’t in addition to any rent, utilities, etc. back home. This is an advantage that’s unique to long-term travel. When most people vacation in Hawaii, they can easily spend $2,000 in a week, and they still have to cover housing expenses back home while they’re away!
The Hustle: How We Earned an Income Without Jobs
The point of this article is to show how we came home with just as much money as we started with — the trip didn’t cost us any of our savings. That means that the sources of income we had outside of full-time work produced the ~$1,900 per month we needed to live.
Our income boiled down to just a few sources:
- I tutored students online and locally in physics and math, about 10 hours per week.
- Lauren negotiated some part-time remote work for the company she left back home, also about 10 hours per week.
- We offered our photography services on the island, advertising mostly in local Facebook and Instagram communities. This was more of a casual effort, something like 0-3 hours per week. It was also something fun and artistic for us to do together, and a great way to meet people in a new place!
- We sought out a bunch more credit card sign-up bonuses (like the Chase Sapphire Preferred one I mentioned earlier) while we were in Hawaii, to earn extra money and travel points.
- Our investments continued to grow untouched — or, at least they should have, theoretically. The stock market actually returned about negative 1% over the course of this particular trip, but as a general rule, our investment portfolio produces passive income in the background whenever we travel, boosting our net worth.
Altogether, this came in above $2,000 per month after tax, which was enough to live on without touching our savings! Because of this, you might be wondering why we felt the need to save so much in the first place.
We actually saved way more than enough beforehand to pay for the entire trip out-of-pocket with no income if things didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped. That was important because it allowed us to enjoy the trip worry-free. It also left us in a good financial place when we got back home, and I wouldn’t personally recommend doing a trip like this any other way — although it’s perfectly possible to do so. That’s a decision everyone has to make for themselves.
The Result: Lifelong Memories Without the Bank Account Hangover
If you’ve been reading carefully, you may have noticed that our wrap-up of expenses glossed over all the up-front costs of the trip, like the $4,500 car, air conditioner, bicycles, and the little bit of furniture we bought. Surely that stuff came out of our savings, right?
Initially, yes, our savings was particularly helpful for getting us started, but all of those items actually cost us nothing over the total course of our trip! Because we bought a cheap used car at the end of its depreciation curve, we were able to sell it on Craigslist for $1,100 more than we paid for it. The used bicycles we bought were resold for their exact original purchase price, and we took a small depreciation hit on the air conditioning unit and some of the furniture. Buying used (and cheap) is so powerful!
The one financial metric we track diligently every month of our lives is our total net worth — the sum of all our assets, minus any liabilities or debt. By the end of this trip, our net worth was actually a tiny bit higher than when we set out, meaning we didn’t backtrack at all on our goal of becoming financially independent.
Although our six-month honeymoon didn’t technically cost $0 (sorry for the clickbait title), the point is that it didn’t deplete our savings whatsoever. Instead, we were able to put that money toward settling down and paying cash for a house as soon as we returned. But we wouldn’t be settled down for too long — it was time to go back to work and save some more before our next big adventure!
Interested in doing something similar? Taking a big break from full-time work to go on an adventure like this is Step 4 of our six-step Financial Roadmap.