Cheap, Wanderer

How Much Does 5 Months in South America Cost?

During the 2018-2019 year, I spent roughly five months backpacking through two South American countries.  Three weeks prior to leaving the States I quit my full-time, well-paying, and benefits-providing job.  Knowing I would be income-less before my trip and unsure as to the state of my finances afterward, my goal was to spend no more than $1,000 a month, a modest spending considering the monthly cost of living in the Washington DC metro area.

Overall, how much did I spend?  I was fairly meticulous the first two to three months, recording almost every transaction (minus the 25-cent city bus rides).  I started to break down these numbers into Excel for your data-viewing pleasure, imagining beautifully colored pie charts as the maraschino cherry on top of this sundae of a blog post.  Unfortunately for me, my cost recording system didn’t quite make for easy categorization.  For example, several of the hostels in which I stayed  included breakfast and/or dinner in the price of the accommodation.  How should I best separate the food and accommodation costs of  a $10 a night hostel?  Would food come to a $3 or $4 portion of the $10 total?  It became too cumbersome, and, honestly, I was too lazy.  (If you would like to see the beautiful type of cost breakdown I was imagining, check out my outline of how much money I spent at the Galápagos Islands).

So here I have the less visually appealing, raw data for you – what was the total amount spent in South America?

By my calculations I spent 146 days travelling, which means I spent  $38.63 per day, for a total of $5,639.69.

(You’ll have to allow for plus or minus $50 error in my calculations, due to the fact that I’m not a mathematician and I didn’t account for every last cent.  I simply subtracted my ending bank balance from my starting bank balance, but I did earn a small amount of interest from this checking account during the time my money was present in the account.  We could really get into nuances here, such as whether I should count the day I left for Ecuador since my flight left after 12pm, but forget that.)

Overall, I’m very happy with the amount I spent.  While my actual numbers ran a bit higher than my original goal (for a 30-day month, I spent $1158.84), my goals changed slightly during my five-month trip.  When planning my trip, I budgeted to spend a month taking Spanish classes and living with a local family in Quito, Ecuador, after which I would travel for pleasure and volunteer for accommodation the rest of the trip.  However, after a month of classes I realized that while my Spanish had certainly improved, it wasn’t quite at the level at which I wanted it to be.  I therefore amended plans and attended a second month of classes while living with a local family in Cusco, Perú; this significantly impacted my budget while also allowing my Spanish abilities to flourish.  Looking back on this decision, it was absolutely the right move.  After the second month of daily Spanish classes I was able to cultivate my language fluency to a level where, seven months after returning from South America, I completed two bilingual interviews and was offered a full-time job where I now converse in Spanish daily with individuals who speak little to no English.

In the vain of 100% transparency, this is the amount of money I spent in South America.  Knowing I could not afford to travel while simultaneously paying bills at home, I eliminated all U.S. costs except for health insurance, which I purchased through the DC marketplace.  This medical and dental insurance was the only U.S. bill I maintained during my travels, although due to recent health policy legislation it was not a requirement.  However, working in the health care field and knowing my own personal health history, I didn’t feel comfortable with anything other than the highest tier of health insurance, which did cost a significant chunk of money each month.

All this being said, I hope my story helps eliminate the myth that travelling is expensive.  Even now, many people assume I spent frivolous amounts of money to quit my job and travel for five months.  However, even if I were to factor in the monthly payments for high-cost health insurance, my monthly costs while travelling were still below what I paid in Washington, DC prior to leaving my full-time job in 2018.

Matt Kepnes became famous for positing we can travel the world for $50 a day, and I always like to keep this metric in mind while travelling.  Where would you go for $50 a day?

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