A 3 Month Backpacking Trip At Age 19 Anchored My Financial Future – Cost Me $35K+ And It Was Worth Every Cent
One of the decisions I made earlier in life put an immediate anchor on my financial journey right out the gate. However, it was also one of the best decisions I ever made and was worth every cent.
What decision was that?
Backpacking Europe for 3 months in the summer when I was 19-20 years old with my best friend.
The cost of the trip, opportunity cost of the missed summer job and additional student loans now needing to be taken out compounded to seriously impact my finances. In total it cost me between $34,000 – $56,000, depending how much of my future education and living decisions I want to hook to this.
I missed out on having that money invested from 2010 – 2017 and the compounded returns those investments would be worth today. I had to pass on getting into the housing market before the real estate boom in British Columbia and Ontario throughout this decade. I’ve suffered through stress, anxiety and angst from the student loan debt I accrued over the following years after the trip.
But I wouldn’t change that decision for the world.
The decision to backpack around Europe for 3 months remains one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
The trip came together quickly. Very quickly.
The seed was originally planted by watching this show that aired on OLN here in Canada called Backpackers. It documented 3 Australian guys adventures as they travelled around Europe in a camper van for a year. A little immature and goofy but still impactful in regards to the freedom they had and amazing memories they were forming seeing the beauty of Europe.
That seed grew much larger one day in mid-January during my 2nd year of university. As part of a project for my Internet Marketing course I was searching out details on budget airlines. That lead me to Ryanair and snowballed into me somehow clicking on Hostelworld. That got me to browsing through hundreds of hostels across Europe…instead of working on my project.
How is it this cheap to stay by the beach in Barcelona?
You can fly from London to Paris for the same price as a 24 case of Molson Canadian?!
Is that a camping ground in Sorrento overlooking the cliffs of the Mediterranean Sea full of lemon and orange trees?
The allure of travelling to Europe had always been in my mind based on a mild-obsession for World War 2 novels and documentaries. I’ve also had an intrigue about the Roman Empire since youth. Plus the cultural diversity in a relatively small geographic region always peaked my interest. My parents too had shared first-hand stories of Paris and Greece.
I just never considered it feasible due to perceived costs, logistics of planning and sheer ignorance.
Before that 90 minute class ended, I had texted my best friend with some expletive laced message. Something along the lines of: “We’re going to f##king Europe. I don’t need any f##king excuses. On my way over with beer, see you in 30 minutes”.
We spent 5 hours clicking through our laptops, drinking beer and bouncing ideas around about this Great European Escapade. As the numbers guy of the duo, I crunched some data in Excel and proudly proclaimed: “3 MONTHS, WE CAN GO FOR 3 MONTHS”.
Within 15 days of first clicking on Hostelworld we had round-trip tickets to London departing May 1st. We’d also purchased a Eurail train pass to last the whole summer. And we still 2.5 months to figure out the rest before we took off.
A 3 Month Backpacking Trip Around Europe
Fast-forward 2.5 months of planning, daydreaming and bouts of nervousness, it was finally May and time to go.
What a whirlwind of adventure.
We visited a total of 14 countries across the UK, Western, Central & Eastern Europe. From Portugal to Romania and Scotland to Greece, our journey spanned most of the continent. Within those 14 countries we stayed multiple nights in 24 different cities and visited dozens of others.
Travelling by plane, train, bus, ferry and foot, we put in 10’s of thousands of kilometres. We met hundreds, if not thousands, of locals and fellow travellers, sharing countless smiles, laughs and deep discussions.
It was the trip of a lifetime at a time when I needed some adventure. I needed to step outside my comfort zone and live a little. I needed to see the world outside of western Canada and the other American or Caribbean locations I’d visited.
The Trip Costs
The total costs of the 3 month backpacking trip netted out to almost $12,000 each. This includes the upfront and ongoing costs:
- Transportation Costs: round-trip airfare from Vancouver to London, an unlimited Eurail Pass, 4 flights around the European continent, a ferry across the Mediterranean Sea and daily inner-city travel
- Accommodation Costs: hostels, hotels and camping for 89 total nights (minus 4 nights spent sleeping in airports, in a train station and on a ferry)
- Food & Entertainment: food, beverages, entertainment and tourist costs for 89 days abroad
I was covering the costs of this trip with everything I’d saved up since I started working as a 15 year old. Plus sold my dependable 1989 VW Jetta to fund the remainder. This was before I knew anything about travel hacking otherwise I likely could’ve saved a portion of the total costs. Check my post Travel Hacking Resources For American and Canadians.
If I had not traveled those 3 months, I had a sweet summer student gig lined up. Well sweet in terms of the pay, not the work.
The Opportunity Cost
I had a job teed up with a local grainery that would pay me $22.75 per hour to essentially be a labourer around the grain elevator. Most of my friends had summer jobs at warehouses ranging in the $13 – $16 per hour wage range.
It wasn’t the prettiest job nor was it connected to my post-secondary education in any way. However, it was a great paying job for a summer student looking to bundle some dollars for school (and fun). Therefore, that opportunity cost for that 3 month period would net out close to $10,920. So including the actual costs of the trip and opportunity cost of not working for those 3 months, I am looking at approx. $22,920 total.
Being a 19-20 year old in the summer between university semesters, I would have spent some of this cash on fun and dumb things. I can’t assume I would have saved and leveraged all $22,920 for optimum spending. See my post on Stupid Money Mistakes I’ve Made.
However, case in point is the trip emptied my savings and provided me with no summer income.
The Student Loans
My first two years of university were covered by the education savings plan my parents, grandparents and I had all been contributing to since I was born. I had originally planned to use my own savings and summer job earnings to cover all remaining university and living costs during my undergrad.
Well obviously I spent that entire savings sum and earned a total of $0 in that 3 month period. That left me in the precarious situation of now requiring student loans. In actuality a series of decision led to the next 4 years costing me a lot more than I’d originally intended.
I moved out from my parents and 8 hours away from my hometown to complete my degree and took out $12,000 in student loans to cover that. After completing my degree, I then moved across the country to do another 2 years of hyper-focused post-grad schooling.
When it was all said and done, I graduated with $34,000 in student loan debt.
Depending how much of this $12,000 or $34,000 I attribute to this European trip financial snowball, the net cost and impact runs in the $34,000 to $56,000 range. Not to mention the investment gains or real estate appreciation. Quite the financial anchor when starting your life as a young adult.
But like I’ve said earlier, I wouldn’t change this decision.
Planning, Budgeting & Money Management
Forecasting 3 months’ worth of spending, including 4 different currencies, at the ripe age of 19 was a difficult, but rewarding task. We each had approximately $12,000 to span the 89 days abroad (including all the necessary upfront costs above).
The 14 countries we were planning to visit had a wide range of costs of living. For example, 4 days in Paris versus 4 days in Prague is vastly different. Those nuances were baked into our travel, accommodation, food and fun budgets.
It was an onerous planning procedure.
Accuracy was essential with this planning and active management throughout the trip. Our return trip to Canada departed London Heathrow 89 days after we touched down. This was a fixed return date and there was no golden parachute to bail us out of poor money management.
At the end of each week, I would update both our budgets. Based on the money in our back accounts, wallets and the accommodations or travel we’d already we prepaid, I’d run a tally to ensure we were still on track.
While I might not have reaped the rewards immediately, it did sow a foundation of money management and budgeting into my mind for future uses. The ability to sit down and plan something as intricate as this backpacking adventure helped sharpen a skill set I can depend on for the rest of my life.
Many of the skills and mindsets that I now focus on due a shifted priority of personal finance and financial independence were applicable to our trip. From the 3-month budget to a daily budget and active ongoing money management. Not to mention always having an emergency fund of available liquid cash. Those fundamental skills were put in practice throughout this adventure.
Up until this point my life had been quite structured. School, sports, work and social activities all relatively controlled by the constraints around me.
After I got on that plane heading across the Atlantic to a foreign land, all those constraints were lifted. No punching the clock, no homework, no 6AM practices, no chores. No after-school team workouts, no living under your parent’s roof, no electives.
That’s a freeing feeling.
At age 19 drinking gin and tonics on a plane knowing you have 3 months of adventure ahead, that’s a freeing f**king feeling. It was just me, my best friend, our 67L backpacks and a continent to explore.
It’s cliché to say I left a boy but returned a man. However, it’s pretty accurate based on what this trip did for my confidence, maturity and views on the world. The freedom to decide what I wanted to do each day and have the onus all be under my control really helped me grow as “a man”.
When you’ve lived under your parents roof your entire life and had their support throughout, have you ever really been independent? I didn’t realize how much, whether direct or indirect, control that has over you.
I grew up, matured, developed new skills and confidence thanks to this trip. That level of independence was a godsend for me at the ripe age of 19.
The memories and experiences I had during this 3-month adventure will stick with me for life. When I am on death’s doorstep as an old man, I can look back and smile on some of these European adventures.
What a ride, what an adventure.
From the wild, reckless escapades of being a 19 year old abroad to the awe-inspiring sites and sounds of immersing yourself in 14 different countries. I was living a travel TV show. This show featured a mix of a college party mixed with a classy historical tours.
During the day our adventures took us to the National History Museum, Trevi Foundation, Bran Castle and 100 other museums, artifacts, famous locations, relaxing waterfronts or historically relevant sights. At night, that turned to pubs, EDM dance halls, beach parties and under the stars wine drinking with other travelers from all corners of the world.
A kid from Vancouver cliff jumping into the Mediterranean and riding mopeds through Italy. A snotty nosed Canadian university student walking the same streets as some of history’s most powerful armies and relevant leaders.
What a ride, what an adventure.
Culture, History & People
I grew up in the diverse location of Vancouver, BC where you’re lucky enough to be privy to countless walks of life. Plus my parents are well-read people who’ve experienced a lot that the world has to offer. They ensured their kids were open-minded, curious and introduced to a broad view.
We had a National Geographic subscription for as long as I can remember. As a youngster I also enjoyed watching documentaries on world history, cultural anomalies and so forth. I had been introduced to a lot in the first 19 years of my life.
Or so I thought.
“You know nothing Jon Snow” is an applicable line here.
- 14 different countries. Overnight stays in 24 different cities.
- National cuisines. Languages. Political histories. Cultural uniqueness.
- World War 1. World War 2. The Cold War.
- Roman Empire. Greek Empire.
- Thousands of years of history.
- Museums. Memorials. Bars. Guided Tours.
- Genocide. Uprisings. Plague.
- Colosseum. Parthenon. Sagrada Familia. Big Ben. Charles Bridge.
- Tranquil beaches. Street festivals. Hidden local gems.
- Edinburgh Castle. The Catacombs. Sistine Chapel. L’Ouvre. The Berlin Wall.
- 94 different types of beer (I kept a tracker in my journal).
We saw bullet holes in buildings from World War 2 and walked the field and beaches from some of the most famous, devastating battles. I visited Auschwitz and had an endless stream of tears pour out of my eyes from the weight of the evil permeating the air. We caught fish in the Mediterranean Sea and cooked it on an open beach fire 15 minutes later while drinking the most delicious Spanish Rose wine.
Everything I had seen in the movies and documentaries or read in books and magazines had become my everyday experience.
Not to mention the 1,000s of other tourists from all corners of the globe we met along the journey. Plus face-to-face conversations with locals ranging from ages 5 to 95.
I got an MBA (well maybe a Diploma) in European culture, cuisine, history, politics and entertainment over those 89 days abroad. Those experiences and lessons learned will stick with me for life. This adventure gave me an appreciation for the diversity in this world that I would never truly understand without having the first-hand experiences.
What a ride. What an adventure.
Final Thoughts & Questions
Did this trip set me back financially? Undoubtedly.
Have the stresses from my financial situation since that trip and after university caused me angst and created issues? Unfortunately yes.
Could I have made significant financial gains with that additional money invested from 2010 – 2017 as the stock market climbed? As opposed to paying off student loans and consumer debt, of course.
Would I be reaping the rewards of getting into the booming Vancouver or Toronto real estate markets earlier in my life? You bet.
However, with all that said I wouldn’t change my decision. Not a chance.
The benefits this trip provided me outweigh those financial cons. I will work harder, smarter and better to close that financial gap it created. There will be few times in life, if any, when I’d ever have had this level of independence and freedom. The youthful exuberance to undertake such an adventure and lack of responsibilities to a career or family to make it feasible. If I do reach FIRE (financial independence retire early) and have the freedom to do so, maybe I can reenact this journey with my future wife.
I would never impose my will on anyone but the benefits of extended travel earlier in life have paid serious dividends for me. Perhaps I will start a “freedom travel” bank account for my kids when they’re born. Each birthday throw $150 in there for when they’re 18 – 22 to spread their own wings.
What a ride, what an adventure.
Have you undertaken any similar adventures in your life?
Do you think I am wrong and would do the opposite if given the choice?
Please share in the comments below. I’d love to hear about the journeys you’ve had and benefits they’ve given you. Or if you disagree, let’s discuss!
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