We’ve been home for about a month now. Most of the furniture is back in its place. The landscape in the yard is starting to return to how we like it. We’ve had reunions with most of our friends. Regular poker games, softball games, and disc golf rounds are back in swing. Life is starting to return to normal.
Well…not really. I guess we are starting to define a “new normal”, one that will hopefully allow us to live a life of less stress…albeit with a lot less income.
Over the last year, despite the exotic travel, our lives went through a period of simplification. Sure, our day to day lives included exploring remote ancient ruins and shiny new modern cities. But that’s just what we did, not how we did it.
We lived in tiny one room apartments, in some cases with showers so small I couldn’t wash my feet without backing into the faucet and turning the water ice cold. We rarely had a car. With the cost of international cell and data plans, we decided to forego mobile connectivity - our fancy smart phones converted to bulky watches away from WiFi. Having to carry our possessions with us, we limited ourselves to one suitcase each, plus a laptop backpack with our computers, cameras, and the like. (And Doug’s 3/4 travel guitar, of course!) Being removed from the creature comforts of our home and regular lifestyle for a whole year, we learned a lot about what we really need to live happily.
Turns out it’s much less than we thought. Sure, all of these conveniences are fantastic if you can have them. But they come at a cost, and we have recognized that some things in our life were actually luxuries, not necessities. Stepping away from them made us realize they were not worth their cost.
The best example has been our cell phone situation. Before the trip, we each had a smart phone, capable of receiving email, searching the internet, uploading photos, playing games, and streaming media anytime, anywhere. Oh, and they were phones too! That was a tough convenience to let go. But, by about the middle of our trip, I stopped missing them, and actually started liking their absence. The peace and quiet, and time to converse and reflect, that come with going off the grid were nice. We still value connectivity at home, where we use Skype to replace the phone parts of our smart phones. But if we’re out doing something, that something ends up taking center stage instead of the web.
Coming back home, we took a fresh look at our situation. It would cost $150/month for a plan to keep us both connected with a smart phone. That’s nearly $2,000 a year, and we decided against it. Instead, taking a page out of my parents playbook, we got a Walmart Tracfone.
This little flip-phone beauty was $14.95, and pay-as-you-go airtime goes for $0.10/minute (when bought in bulk.) We still use Skype for long conversations with family and friends out of town, and those are usually free. If our current usage continues, we’ll spend a total of about $12-15/month. As Doug said, “Sure, our phone technology isn’t cutting edge, but it comes with a dozen free pizzas a month!”
The additional cost of convenience for two connected smart phones was worth it when we had steady income. But we now have a motivation for saving everywhere we can. We have now experienced the benefits of life without a high-stress job, not the least of which is the dramatic improvement in Doug’s health, and we want more. We have ideas. Creative ideas. We want to try to nurture one of these ideas until it grows into a financially sustaining venture - when we can comfortably work for ourselves, away from the grind. But to succeed, we need to extend our savings and meager trickle of side-project income, for as long as we can. These projects will not get enough attention if we have to split our time with a 50-hour work week for someone else.
So for now, we look for savings where we can, within our own definitions of reason. Some conveniences are worth it (hello high speed internet connection!), but some just aren’t going to make the cut. For now, while we’re both essentially working from home, we’re sticking to one car - the Prius that our good friend Mason was babysitting for us while we were on the road.
That also means one registration, one insurance policy, and one maintenance bill.
I was shocked to realize some of the grocery expenses I had a year ago. I went to buy my old faithful hair conditioner when we returned, and learned that I apparently used to pay $20/bottle! It was a big bottle, but I still ran to the other end of the aisle and grabbed the 2 for $7 Pantene thank you very much. And small bottles of gourmet salad dressing for $8? Not anymore. My grocery cart still has free-range meat in it, but it also has a lot more carefully selected sale items than before.
These were some of the decisions that were easy to adjust to after our travels. But they haven’t all been this easy. One of the hardest transitions has been the cable decision. We used to pay a lot for satellite cable service, and only used it for a narrow slice of specific, but greatly enjoyed, programming. It just didn’t make sense. Since American cable TV wasn’t an option overseas, we learned to find most of our content online. Thanks to Hulu, Netflix, and in some cases the network’s website, this is easier for some programs than others. In a few unavoidable circumstances it did require some loose interpretations of the laws. (Come on HBO, you have to offer online only subscriptions at some point. We’ll pay you for it if you offer us the product!) But it worked for the most part for a few small subscription fees.
Coming home we decided to drop cable for good. We are part of a growing number of “cord-cutters” who are turning to streaming on line for selected content instead of the everything-on-the-plate offerings of traditional cable. But streaming a football game on your laptop in a tiny apartment in Croatia is different than trying to stream a football game to your new giant TV in front of your big comfy couch.
Here our expectations are higher. We learned early on that one good tool was a Hi Def antenna to get the locally broadcast stations for free…you know, like when we were kids. But unlike when I was a kid, in Northern NH with few local stations available, we now get dozens of channels in crystal clear Hi Def signal thanks to our new Leaf Antenna - bonus!
We also bought a TV with WiFi access. But it turns out that just buys you access to paid apps - Netflix and Hulu Plus and the like. There’s no browser. So, if you want to watch, say, a streaming football game - you’re hooking the laptop up to the TV and often getting a subpar picture.
This transition has definitely been harder. Despite the “cord-cutter” label, we appear to have more cords now than before. And the ap technology built into the TV is still pretty buggy and crashes often. It will take time for the industry to catch up to a shifting consumer market. But, it’s saving us a ton of money - money we’d otherwise be spending every month for the foreseeable future. Over the last year we learned to navigate the complex tapestry of different tools to access different shows, and the hassle is worth the savings.
This is one less-often discussed benefit of a long stint of foreign travel. Not only do you gain new perspective on other cultures and what the rest of the world is like, you get a new perspective on your own needs and capabilities. I’ve bought shampoo at a Chinese grocery store, unable to read a single word on the bottle other than the English “shampoo”, and my hair survived just fine. I have spent an evening at a bar without the answer to every trivia question ever at the tip of my fingers, and I had a great time. I know how little clothing, toiletries, and space I can happily live with. And if these measures can extend our innovation phase by even a little, increasing our chances of success, isn’t it worth it?