What if there were a secret community of people roaming the world on gap years…or even on perpetual holiday?
Last year I got an intriguing email from Jason, a reader who explained how what had started as a gap year for grown ups turned into something more.
When I was in the Prison Camp, I had no idea that people are travelling round Europe in comfort on £8,600 per person per year or less. Who knew?
So I asked Jason (who blogs at ourtour.co.uk) to tell their story. Enjoy!
The Escape Artist
My wife Julie and I are financially free aged 43. Our lifestyle now revolves around travel, and we’re currently winding our way slowly across Europe in a motorhome. As I write this* we’re in Rimini on the Italian Adriatic coast, and the sun is shining.
We chose not to have children, a decision which made financial independence (FI), much easier to achieve, although that choice wasn’t about money since neither of us had even heard of FI before we turned 40.
In our old lives, we worked as salaried employees in the offices of corporations. I worked in IT, Julie worked in marketing. I started off as a technical author and worked my way up to project manager. Julie started off as a receptionist and ended up as a marketing manager. We both studied outside of work, worked daft hours and took on team manager jobs to get promoted. By the time we quit, we were both managing teams and earning £90,000 per year between the two of us.
I’m from a working class family and the shift into management was hard for me to handle. I really struggled to understand the skills needed to manage people. We can’t claim to be brave for quitting work; I had a work-related breakdown and initially we just stopped work to take a year out and recover. Things took an interesting twist from that point onwards.
Before the gap year, we lived in a three bedroom detached house on a corner plot with an extended garage, in Nottinghamshire. A hot tub bubbled away in the garden, perpetually heated. The garage and loft were well stuffed with years of accumulated belongings. Counting them up, we were surprised to find we had at least seven computers and two games consoles. Our evenings would be spent sat in front of a wall-mounted plasma TV browsing through the Virgin+ listings with one eye on a tablet. I’d set up a night vision web cam which enabled us to monitor our dog’s sleeping habits over the Internet. We had two cars, a camper van and a motorbike. All fairly standard, middle class behaviour I guess, but we were far from feeling fulfilled.
I became desperate to exit work. I felt the darkness of depression pulling me down me into what felt like a deep hole in the earth. Julie was in better shape, but wasn’t immune to the stresses of her work environment either.
A TV series about people paying their mortgages off in two years prompted us to attempt the same. We started to clear out our stuff, and as more of it went on eBay, the more we realised our precious things had little value. Our buying slowed as a result, and all the money previously spent on ‘stuff’ now went towards paying off the mortgage. Momentum built until one day, amazingly only three years later, the mortgage was gone. With the mortgage gone, and our buying habit with it, our savings went ballistic.
We worked out roughly what a year traveling in a motorhome would cost us, based on previous two week holidays, and as soon as the bank account hit that level, we pulled the trigger, handed in notices and started serious planning for a year on the road. We bought a second hand motorhome and spent the evenings sticking ‘go here’ post-it notes on a map of Europe. Moving our remaining belongings into the loft and a storage facility, we let our house out.
The trip was intended to give us time and space to find new vocations, a mid-life crisis of sorts. We’d worked hard to be able to take this once-in-a-lifetime adventure, and had every intention of returning to our home and work after the year was up. Of course neither of us knew it, but this act of travelling would eventually set us on the path to FI. The travel proved we could thrive on limited resources, since everything is limited in a motorhome; space, weight, electricity, water, gas, diesel, even the capacity of the loo!
It proved we could happily live together, in a small space, 24/7. It proved that we valued experiences over possessions. It was proof that spending £17,216 a year was enough for the two of us to live a great life (we’ve met people who are comfortable on far less). And, most importantly, fellow travellers we met introduced us to the ‘pre-retirement’ FI concept, such an outlandish idea we’d possibly have never been exposed to otherwise. The gap year continued beyond 12 months as we found ways to stretch our time on the road by reducing our costs, but eventually we spent all but our emergency fund and needed to head home and find work.
At this point we’d been free for two years. This kind of freedom was something neither of us had experienced in the past. No deadlines. No commutes. No pointless slide packs. No 6am flights. No bosses. No reorganisations. No office politics. No fighting for days off. No performance reviews. All of it gone, leaving us free to decide where we went, what we did.
The most formative experiences for me were probably in the financially poorer countries, Morocco, Tunisia and Ukraine, where we realised that even on our self-constrained budget, we lived a life of kings.
One day walking a market near the Libyan border, a local tried to buy our dog. On reflection we realised this was quite a reasonable thing or him to do, since we were leading an animal around a market on what looked like a piece of string. Attempting to explain we couldn’t sell him as he was part of our family yielded a very confused Arab, and drove home to me just how luxurious a life we lead.
At the end of all of this, as our wheels touched the earth at Dover, I burst into tears. The burning desire to regain freedom, what I referred to as our ‘blinding light’, was ablaze. Nothing would stop us getting that freedom back.
Only now did we start to truly pursue FI. A friend we met on the road introduced us to Robert Kiyosaki’s book Rich Dad Poor Dad, which shifted our consciousness sideways. Although it stated what now seems quite obvious, none of the ideas came naturally to me. I rummaged around the Internet looking for inspiration, finding the outstanding Early Retirement Extreme and Mr Money Moustache blogs and devouring them.
We dusted off our personal pension plan statements, something we’d never looked at previously, to discover we’d been investing in them for 18 years. Combined and compounded, they’d grown to a sizeable investment. Since we were too young to access them though, we needed an alternative approach, and set about finding the best ways for us to achieve additional income. Going back to corporate life to earn the money for our investments, we set up our own business and worked as consultants in our chosen fields.
We bought and renovated another property to rent out and also started a ‘trial investment’ in Vanguard funds, since neither of us had directly invested in the stock market before, and were nervous of it.
After only two years at home, we’d hit the crossover point – we had enough passive income coming in to cover our outgoings.
In retrospect, we did it too quickly, and this time Julie suffered depression, since cured with help from the fantastic NHS. We don’t know what caused it; probably us pushing too hard. When we weren’t commuting or working, we were renovating. By that point our living expenses were so low and our passive income was already flowing and by the end we were saving 100% of both our salaries. With hindsight, we’d take a gentler approach.
Do we still worry about money? Sure. There’s a leap of faith required to quit regular jobs, a worry that you’ve somehow missed something. But we don’t agonise over safe withdrawal rates. I’ve modelled our personal cashflow out based on varying rental yields, interest rates and inflation rates. We have an emergency fund big enough to cover at least 3 years even if all other income sources dried up.
Now our investments are based on rental properties, personal pensions, two roof-mounted solar arrays, Vanguard ETFs and cash ISAs. We track all our spending and, even though we no longer work, we’re still steadily building up our emergency fund from passive income, so we’re getting safer and safer. We consider the whole thing an experiment though, ultimately. It might “fail”, in which case we’ll find work of some sort.
Freedom for us means we’ve joined a community of people from all walks of life who travel for various lengths of time in a motorhome. Airline pilots, builders, doctors, business owners, paramedics, teachers, policemen, lawyers, you name it, they’re out on the road wandering. Continental Europe is far more geared up for his kind of community than the UK, and many countries have hundreds of low-cost or free official or semi-official overnight stopovers available.
Many people opt to overwinter somewhere warm in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Sicily or Morocco, and campsites there will charge as little as €6 a night for the privilege. Our wanderings haven’t seen us stay still for long, and we tend to move every day or two, which makes it difficult to become bored. Our time is spent on research, driving, planning, walking, taking photographs, swimming, updating our travel blog, writing, reading and whatever else takes our fancy. We even wrote and self-published two books on taking a motorhome to Morocco, which we enjoyed massively, not least because it helped prove to us we could earn from sources other than a salary.
Our current plan (which changes by the day) is to take a ferry from Ancona to Croatia and travel up the Adriatic coastline as spring emerges. We’ll then most likely cross Slovenia into Austria, and through a route which has to take in the Czech Republic (so I can stock up on lager there), we’ll head though Poland and the Baltic States to Finland. Our goal this year is to head into the Arctic in the summer months and reach the North Cape in Norway, before exploring the islands and fjords and working our way back to the UK via Sweden and Denmark. By the time we arrive back in the UK, we’ll have spent three years on the road, and slept in around 750 different places.
We plan to come back, see friends and family, eat fish and chips and maybe do some interim work before going travelling again. Plans are afoot for another winter tour of Morocco with another FI couple we know. What happens after that, we don’t know.
We still have our base in the UK. We have storage for the motorhome at a nearby farm, so we could opt to come back at any time, if we decide to do more paid work or want to be near family for example. The idea is to maintain a good level of flexibility to deal with whatever circumstances the future brings.
Life has taken some twists and turns for us. We’re both from hard working families. My father was a coal miner and I’m proud of him for the long years he worked at the coal face, although I wish he’d been able to support his family without wrecking his health. We worked hard too, but working hard wasn’t fulfilling our basic need to be happy, so something had to change.
As smiling Moroccan’s would tell us as they attempted to sell us everything under the sun: “you Europeans may have watches, but we Moroccans have time!”. Now neither Julie nor I wear a watch. Given a choice between a watch and an unforgettable local meal out, we’d choose the experience every time.
Nope, no watches, but we most certainly have time.
*TEA note: this article was originally written in 2016. Jason & Julie returned to the UK recently and here is Jason’s July 2017 update:
What next? Well, I’m getting geared up for a three month contract, doing some technical writing for an old manager of mine, who is also a friend. We don’t need the money, but I need the focus of work for a while, and the money will no doubt find a home. Various ideas are bouncing around as to what we do in the coming year, but nothing has firmed itself up yet. Having a purpose is important in life, and we’re turning attention to finding that purpose again.