The Eat, Pray, Love effect: How families finance adventure travel

Part 4 of a Monitor cover story about how families hit by the Eat Pray Love effect finance adventure travel – selling the house, taking the kids out of school and hitting the road.

Courtesy of the James Family
The James family – (l. to r.) Craig, Caroline, Conor, and Dani – at Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes.Families who decide to leave it all behind, Eat, Pray, Love style, usually finance adventure travel over a period of at least a year. The James family was planning five years ahead, and Craig – a corporate communications consultant – began saving 10 percent of every contract to create “enough of a cushion to make the trip and feel less of a financial risk.”

Planning extended adventure travel is a complex equation of time and money and “it’s easier to do if you have money, no question,” says writer David Elliot Cohen who took a year off with his wife and three kids in 1996 and wrote “One Year Off: Leaving It All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey with Our Children.” “If you’re just living paycheck to paycheck, you haven’t saved for your kids’ college, haven’t thought much about your retirement savings, this may not be for you.”

But many hit by the Eat, Pray, Love effect – as sparked by Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir – will get extraordinarily disciplined to accomplish their extended adventure travel dream.

For four years, Rainer and Carol Jenss, of Nyack, N.Y., planned their trip, saving as much of Carol’s salary as possible and reaching their goal of $150,000. “The planning can seem overwhelming, but it was also really fun,” says Rainer, who left his job as an executive at National Geographic Kids in 2008 to travel for a year with Carol and their two sons, 8 and 11 at the time. “You have this world map and you’re thinking, ‘Where do I want to go?’ ”

Dee and Scott Andrews sold their house and lived off the equity. Scott continued to manage his high-tech business – making a one-week trip back every quarter – and earning a part-time salary.

In the mid-2000s when they first decided to travel, Craig and Dani James, of Silver Sping, Md,, weren’t sure exactly what trip they’d wind up making with their two kids. But, says Craig, they made a “massive study of the whole subject. Even five years before we left, we were talking about it."

Craig, who was an independent corporate communications consultant making six figures, began saving 10 percent of every contract, and within two to three years, he says, they had saved about $100,000. It was, he says, “enough of a cushion to make the trip and feel less of a financial risk.”

They zeroed out their debt at home, renting out their house for slightly more than their mortgage and selling their car. In 2008 they set out first for South America, then went on to New Zealand, Australia, and Southeast Asia, and finished in Europe a year later.

Doug and Ann Brown were able to semiretire after selling their suburban San Diego home. He quit his job as national sales director at Innovasia and they moved to Mexico, living off residual income from investments. They also had very little debt, says Doug. “It’s less expensive to live in Mexico. You can have a rich life without being overextended.”

They live a very financially disciplined life now, making the same budget-conscious decisions other middle-class American families make, says Ann. “This lifestyle may seem expensive, but it certainly doesn’t require someone to be extremely wealthy to do it,” she says. The Browns started a home-maintenance company in Baja and became distributors for water purifiers and softeners, which gave them the extra income they needed to live at sea for most of the past year.

Betsy and Warren Talbot saved and planned their trip for two years. They did research online and spoke to other travelers to figure out what they would need, on average, each day. The couple – she a business consultant and he handling long-term strategy for Microsoft – saved for 25 months and began downsizing on a weekly basis so they wouldn’t be overwhelmed right before they left. Their original budget was $75,000 for travel around the world for one year. (Betsy’s blog details expenditures in the “expense report” section.)

In October 2010 they left, each with a large backpack and small daypack. In mid-April, after taking a cruise ship to Antarctica, they asked if they could stay on board and ride back with the crew to England. The ship’s crew told them that no one had ever asked that before, and they let the Talbots stay on without charge.

Already, they see their decision to travel as a complete life changer. “I don’t expect us to ever return to regular life,” says Warren. “The money will eventually run out, of course, so we’ll have to face that and deal with that when it happens.”

Next: The final three parts. It’s not all paradise – “Never mind we’d been to Machu Picchu that day, when there was a party [my teen] had missed [back home].”

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