Ever look at your monthly budget feel like you pay nothing but bills? Your mortgage payment. Your student loans. Your car loan. Your credit card bills. If you feel like you live under a mountain of debt, you’re not alone. According to a NerdWallet study, the average U.S. household owes a total of $137,063 (including their mortgage). And among those with credit card debt, the average is more than $16,000 per household. For would-be travelers, this poses a challenge: Is it responsible to add travel debt to this picture?
On one hand, you don’t want to miss out on the chance to explore the world while you’re young and healthy enough to enjoy it. On the other, you don’t want to jeopardize your credit score or your longer-term priorities—like retirement or your children’s college education—by spending money you don’t have on pricey vacations.
The Case for Travel When You’re in Debt
Many people choose to prioritize travel despite their debt. “The world is big and life is too short,” says Amanda Keeley-Thurman, who runs a family travel blog called HotMamaTravel.com and travels with her children despite her family’s student loan and credit card debt. “As family travelers, we want to see the world with our kids while they are young, to educate them, make those memories, and build those bonds. The world is the best classroom. It is also not wise to assume that you can put off travel dreams until after retirement, because nothing that far in the future is certain.”
Jessica Albert-Huynh of SweetandSavor.com has also decided that travel should also take precedence in her life. “My husband and I have come to the conclusion that we will probably always be carrying some form of debt (auto loan, mortgage, student loans). It’s just a fact of life,” Albert-Huynh says. “If we wait around to pay everything off first, we will have missed our best years to travel freely.” But, she notes, they’ve agreed upon one important condition: “We have to pay for the trip 100 percent up front and not take on any more debt.”
Katrina McGhee, a life coach who traveled around the world for nearly two years despite hefty student loan balances, notes that travel can actually help keep you motivated to pay off your debt. “Achieving big goals requires that you not only work on making your goal happen but that you also work on making your current life better/happier,” says McGhee. “So as long as you have a plan and are making progress in paying down your debt, it’s OK to have a side fund where you are saving dollars for a specific purpose like travel. Nothing in life is guaranteed, so it doesn’t make sense to not enjoy the present when you are working toward a distant future goal.”
The Case Against Travel When You’re in Debt
If your debt has a low interest rate and you’re paying it down steadily without scrounging for money at the end of the month, you probably have enough wiggle room in your budget to pay for a vacation here and there. But if you’re carrying high-interest credit card balances that are growing, not shrinking—or if you can’t afford a vacation without taking on more debt—you might want to put off your trip.
“There’s a reason why the word ‘debt’ in German directly translates to ‘guilt,'” says Nate Masterson, Director of Finance for Maple Holistics. “Debt is something that has to be taken care of, like a flat tire on your car or a leaky ceiling. But does that necessarily mean that you can’t still take that holiday? Well, if you look at it in a purely rational sense—yes. … This is especially true if you’re dealing with credit card debt or consumer debt, as the longer the debt is left to stagnate, the worse your credit rating becomes and the more expensive it becomes to pay it back.”
You might feel like you need a vacation to ease the stress of struggling with bills, but it won’t help much in the long term if it only adds to your financial and emotional burden. Instead, consider tackling the debt first and using travel as an incentive, advises Kollin Lephart of Every Girl, Everywhere: “Setting a goal for yourself on how much to pay off before you travel is a good idea. It makes you work harder to really get that debt down, and then travel is your reward.”
Tips for Traveling When in Debt
Take stock of your financial picture. Are you keeping up with payments on long-term debts such as your mortgage or student loans? Are you putting enough toward your credit cards to reduce the balance, or are you just paying the minimum as your debt snowballs? Apps and money-managing services such as Mint and Quicken can help you visualize where your money is going and figure out whether you’re spending more than you earn.
Create a long-term plan. Once you know what you’re spending, make a plan and create room in your budget for travel. For example, you might want to transfer your credit card balances onto a single zero-interest card or take out a personal loan to pay them off at a lower rate, helping you save money on interest and freeing up extra cash to put toward an inexpensive vacation.
Never take on additional travel debt. Instead, start budgeting and saving in advance so you’ll have enough to pay for the trip up front. Maggie Hayes, founder of Totally Teen Travel, recommends estimating the cost of the vacation, adding an additional 20 percent to cover unforeseen expenses, and dividing the total amount by the number of months you have to save it. Then put aside that amount of money each month while continuing to make regular payments on your debt.
Start a side hustle. If there simply isn’t room in your budget for both paying down debt and traveling, consider supplementing your income with a side hustle. Jason Decker, founder of Travel Rewards Coach, paid off $85,000 of student loan debt in two years by taking on freelance jobs and renovating a couple of fixer-uppers, which he sold at a profit. Other side hustle ideas include driving for Uber or Lyft, selling crafts on Etsy, or renting out a spare room on Airbnb.
Travel within your means. “Your travel spending habits should match your disposable income,” says Dan Shube, chief marketing officer at Labor Finders International and host of The Golf and Travel Show. “Big debt? Pitch a tent in a state or national park. Debt-free? Move up to first class and a luxury hotel! You deserve it!”
There are numerous ways to minimize the cost of your trip, from scoring free lodging and finding hacker fares to using credit card points for flights and even eating for free. Weekend getaways, road trips, camping trips, and even a “staycation” in your own home city can help you scratch the travel itch without spending much.
Get creative. “Trade services for lodging, food, and most of your travel cost,” recommends Elizabeth Avery, founder of Solo Trekker 4 U. “Be a nanny for a family going to Cape Cod or Europe for their summer vacation. Alternatively, provide companion care for seniors looking to travel abroad or at home. Be a vacation dog sitter in another city or country. Chaperone a school or community group on travel.”
You can even make money while traveling. Lephart moved to Taiwan to teach English, which allowed her to backpack around Southeast Asia while still earning enough to pay down her student loans.
Do you travel with student loan or credit card debt? Share your experiences below.
More from SmarterTravel:
- The 7 Cheapest Ways to Travel
- How to Plan an Insanely Cheap Trip That Feels Expensive
- Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay
Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.