Our current time zone: GMT +8 (We're home in Singapore!)

Monday, March 21, 2011

We Did It!

It has been a long (but seemingly fast) 1 year and 2 months since we returned from our big trip in January 2010. Just as we thought that everyone had forgotten that we were once an energetic, adventure-loving couple (hard to tell judging from how sedentary our lives have become), Simply Her contacted me for an interview and a request to feature us in the April issue. The article was about planning and managing finances while taking a Gap Year from work. The writer had obtained the contact from a TNP journalist, who had interviewed us for a similar newspaper feature almost a year ago - but the story never made it to print. Bah.

Since about 90% of the interview for Simply Her also never made it to print, here is the full interview reproduced for our lovely followers. If you're planning to run away from home (and reality) for a while, this is your financial travel bible.

Simply Her: Please share with me your reasons for going on a sabbatical.

My husband and I have always been avid travelers. In fact, we both met in 2004 while working in the travel industry: him as a sales executive in an airline and myself as a travel consultant. We married in 2005 and decided to embark on efforts to start a family in 2007. But I saw then that family plans would prove a major obstacle to realising my dream of doing a year-long backpacking trip around the world. So we decided to put family plans on hold as it was more logical, practical and less expensive to travel as a couple instead of a family with young children. (I blogged about this for MaybeBaby, you can refer to the full story here: http://www.maybebaby.sg/blog/2010/05/08/the-story-of-us-her-story-part-3/)

SH: How long were you away? What did you do?

We traveled for ten months straight, from end-March 2009 to end-Jan 2010. We visited key cities (e.g. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York City, Boston, Miami, etc.) and National Parks (e.g. Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Everglades, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion & Bryce, Rockies, etc.) in the United States. From the USA, we visited several Caribbean islands such as Puerto Rico, St Lucia, the Bahamas, Barbados, St Kitts & Nevis. In South America, we traveled studied Spanish and traveled through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil. Highlights included (click on links to read the posts):

- River rafting in San Gil (Colombia)

- Photographing hummingbirds in the cloud forest in Mindo (Ecuador)

- Whale watching and seeing blue-footed boobies in Puerto Lopez (Ecuador)

- Viewing the Nazca Lines, exploring Machu Picchu and eating guinea pig (Peru)

- Cruising amongst ice bergs and glaciers in Chile

- Doing a jeep safari amongst salt plains, coloured lagoons and wild flamingos in Uyuni (Bolivia)

- Traveling to the end of the world to Ushuaia; watching street tango; eating the best beef in the world in Argentina

- Experiencing life on the beach in Copacabana and Ipanema; walking amidst the Iguazu Falls and cosying up to exotic birds in Brazil

SH: What were your main financial considerations about being away from your job for so long?

Basically how we were going to fund our trip as well as keep expenses at home going (e.g. car instalment payments, insurance premiums, etc.)

How did you negotiate with your employer to take this time off?

I had been working with my current employer for two years at the time I broached the subject. The organisation I work in has been generally understanding and generous in granting staff no-pay leave to attend to personal matters and to take up opportunities for personal growth development, such as extended maternity leave, study leave, accompanying their spouse on an overseas posting, etc. but no one had ever asked for a year off simply to travel. I was very grateful when they acceded to request. I guess it helped that I promised to return to work for the organisation and not quit in the near future…

SH: How long did planning for this sabbatical take?

It was about 1.5 years from the time we made the decision to go until the time we left Singapore. Planning was done at a gradual pace throughout this time.

SH: What kind of financial arrangements did you have to make before going on this trip? (eg: arrange for your family to help you settle any legal issues, arrange to give your family power of attorney to handle your financial matters, set up GIRO account for monthly bills, set up internet banking, pay your bills in advance, etc)

- Meeting with financial planner to set the budget

- Setting up GIRO accounts for monthly bills such as utilities, car installment payments, club memberships, etc.

- Setting up internet banking so that we could pay credit card bills while overseas

SH: How much did you budget for your sabbatical? How long did you take to save this amount or How did you raise the money?

We budgeted S$60,000 total for two persons for 1 year. This included having to pay for all continuing expenses at home, such as home mortgage, car installments, insurance premiums, club memberships, etc. Over the 1.5 years leading to this trip, we made a very conscious effort to apportion a huge part of our income into a trip fund. We also cut back on small luxuries such as expensive dinners, shopping, etc. We only invested in items that we would use extensively on this trip e.g. a DSLR, a wide-angle camera lens, good-quality traveling bags, portable hard disks, etc. Our good friends also helped us out through their thoughtful farewell gifts, like a GPS unit, fleece jacket, Skype credits, outdoor equipment (e.g. dry sacks, scarves) and even a season pass to the Six Flags theme parks in the US. We tried raising some money by selling calendars featuring photographs we had taken while on the trip but while sales were good, the profit margin wasn’t very high.

Our budgeting for the trip would have been a lot more haphazard if it were not for our financial advisor. She worked out our target savings each month before our trip, and also helped us lay out a whole list of our monthly expenses that we tried very hard to reduce before we left Singapore.

- For example:

- i) My parents-in-law were staying with us in our HDB flat and they rented out theirs flat. We got a share in the rental income that they deposit into the bank for us.

- ii) My sister rented our car, so she has helped us cut our car installments by half with her rental fees.

- iii) We also looked into things like suspending handphone services from for a nominal monthly fee, premium holidays, and anything else that made sense.

SH: What was this money spent on when you were on your sabbatical?

Accommodation, plane/train/bus tickets, car rental and gas, food, entrance/tour fees.

SH: Please share with me about other financial commitments that you had in Singapore – mortgages, bank loans, monthly bills, gym/country club memberships, car payments, insurance payments, etc – how did you honour your commitments? (Please be specific on what kind of financial commitments these were, how much they were, and what you did to honour these commitments eg: iBanking, arrange for family member to pay your bills, etc)

- Home mortage for 5-room HDB flat: completely paid through CPF

- Bank loans: nil

- Monthly bills: suspended all handphone bills; paid for HDB utilities through GIRO

- Country club membership: talked to club to reduce monthly membership to nominal ‘absentee member’ fee for 1 year, paid via GIRO

- Insurance payments: bugeted for and paid via GIRO

- All credit card bills paid via iBanking

- Family members helped us make payments for things like income tax, conservancy charges, etc. through cheques or AXS machines

SH: Did you have an emergency fund (how much?) that you can fall back on in case of an emergency while on sabbatical, or for some reason, you can’t get your job back at the end of your sabbatical?

- We bought travel insurance for a year to cover any medical or other emergencies that may arise while on sabbatical

- We did not have an emergency fund. If we ran out of money earlier than intended, we would have just come home

- While my husband had to quit his job, my employer had held a place for me so we weren’t particularly worried about this aspect

SH: How else did you save money and cut corners?

- Before the trip: see above on how we saved the money

- During the trip:

- In the USA: constantly searched for and flew budget airlines for domestic flights, survived on Subway, fast food and Walmart roast chicken from the deli (cheapest food avail.) We stayed in motels throughout and conscientiously researched on and compared prices across booking websites. No shopping.

- In the Caribbean: we flew budget airlines from the USA and stayed in hostels where possible. We searched around for the less expensive cruises, which turned out to be a good deal as they covered accommodation, meals and transport. But we had to forgo day trips offered to cruise guests as these were very expensive. Instead, we took public transport and made our own way to public beaches or cafes in town to relax while the ship docked. Absolutely no shopping.

- In South America: cost of living in most South American countries is relatively cheap, which was one of the reasons we chose the Americas over Europe for this trip. Still, we constantly searched for cheapest hostels on booking websites and looked for inexpensive meals, often cooking our own in the hostel kitchens such as pasta and instant noodles. We also sourced for tours carefully so as to get the best value for money. As far as possible, we stay in hostels with that offer free WiFi so that we don’t have to pay for internet access. Minimal shopping limited to unique souvenirs such as inexpensive wood carvings from the handicraft market.

- Basically, it helps to invest in good quality equipment right from the start as these are relatively inexpensive and easily obtainable in Singapore (e.g. versatile backpack, smartly-designed outdoor gear that can cater to a range of weather conditions and temperatures, cameras, laptops, iPhone/iPod, etc.) instead of having something breakdown halfway (e.g. camera, laptop) in the wilderness and pay an arm and a leg to get it repaired/replaced. That said, we did have to replace a camera (that drowned) and my laptop barely scraped through the trip. Getting vaccinations beforehand and staying healthy throughout the trip helps cut down medical expenses too.

SH: Estimated expenses during Trip (food, lodging, airfares)?

- Airfare: $5,000

- Accommodation: $30,000

- Car rental, bus/train tickets, tours, food, miscellaneous (e.g. visa fees, toiletries, etc.): $15,000

- Insurance, country club membership fees, car instalments, utilities, etc: $10,000

SH: Mortgage?

Can’t really recall. Say $1,300 per month paid via CPF. We sold our HDB upon returning to Singapore.

SH: Money to parents?

Nil. Our parents kindly waived the need for monthly contributions while we were traveling (Thanks mum! Thanks dad! Thanks parents-in-law! *wave*)

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