Should You Travel While in Debt?

Back in 2006, I made a promise to myself that I would travel at least once every year to a country I’ve never been before. That was eight years ago and I’ve managed to keep this promise to myself despite a lingering student debt that I’ve been chipping away at.

So how does a girl who blogs about a frugal lifestyle spend so freely on one of the most costly and leisurely expenditures?

Well, two reasons:

Some girls can’t live without shoes. I can’t live without travel. It’s super important to me so I find a way to make it possible. This usually means I spend less on other life luxuries (getting my hair done, dining out at restaurants, etc.) to save up for my annual vacation.

I have student debt but it’s my only debt. As one of my role models, Gail Vaz-Oxlade, would say: Student debt is a normal debt to have. I know some people in their forties with outstanding student loans (Barak Obama didn’t pay off his until he was 43…maybe “know” is a loose term).

Yep, I could give my wanderlust the cold-shoulder and put every penny towards my debt to pay it off as fast as possible. But is being debt-free my top priority? Nope!

It also doesn’t mean I ignore it either. I manage my money so that I can live the way I want to live AND contribute regular monthly payments towards paying my debt off. It’s a balance between my responsibilities and the things I enjoy in life.

“Okay, but I have other non-student-related debts. Can I still travel?”

That depends, Dorothy. Are we talking good debt or bad debt?

Good debt: student loans, taking out a mortgage, car loans. It’s an investment that will increase in value or generate more income in the future.

Bad debt: credit cards or cash advances. They are usually used to purchase items that lose their value over time or generates no future income. These kind of debts also carry higher interest.

You shouldn’t travel if you have bad debt. This should be a flashing warning sign to you that you’re likely spending more money than you’re making. So travelling is a no-no until you conquer all bad debt first. If you can’t afford to pay for everyday purchases, how do you expect to afford a trip?

“F@%# bad debt! I need to travel while I’m still young!”

I kinda disagree with this. I get that travelling becomes more difficult with kids, a mortgage, and a middle/upper-management career but it’s not impossible. Your life doesn’t stop just because you have more responsibilities. With all that going on anyway, you’ll probably need a vacation more than you do in your twenties!

I don’t see my wanderlust slowing down even after I have a few rugrats kicking around. Travel is my passion and it would be an amazing opportunity to share this with my (future) kids one day and see the world with them. I also figure at that point I’ll have more vacation days to take and hopefully more disposable income. Goodbye hostels and dinners at the grocery store!

Any travel experiences you go through in life, whether you’re 20, 40, or 60, will be amazing. Trust me.

There’s no imaginary age that you have to complete all your travels by or else it’s all over. Don’t get yourself into serious bad debt while you’re in your twenties by travelling on little to no funds and then reaching your prime thirties in the hole. This is an excellent way to get yourself on the bad credit list and can ruin your opportunities in the future.

Some people will disagree with my approach and say that paying off your debts is priority and travelling should only happen after you’re completely debt-free. During my travels, I’ve met travellers who had no debt, had only good debt, or some who were so far in the red that only a miracle could help them pay it off. Each approach means different sacrifices so it really comes down to what kind of financial sacrifices you want to make and how your life will be affected by it.

Can you still travel while paying off debt? Do you think it’s a good idea to prioritize your wants before your debts?

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  • Reply breanna @ subtle cues November 6, 2014 at 10:48 am

    I’ve been debating about this a lot lately. I have quite a bit of student debt, but I also value traveling and aspire to see the world. I do feel guilty going somewhere and spending a pretty penny when it could be going towards my student loans, but I do think it is important to prioritize your top wants before your debt, especially if it will be around for a while.

    • Reply Christine November 6, 2014 at 2:57 pm

      Totally. Some people live a very frugal, no-spend kind of lifestyle in order to pay off their debts faster but that’s not for you or me. And that’s okay. Everyone has different priorities – my college roommate paid off her student debt, got married, bought a home, and had two kids all before she turned 25. She’s never stepped foot outside of Canada and she’s fine with that because raising a family was her priority.

      • Reply APD June 27, 2015 at 10:26 am

        I would not travel if I was in a student debt.

        In an ideal world, I would not travel if I had ANY debt including mortgage. If I could cut down my expenses to the bones, I could easily pay off ALL of my loans in the next 4 years.

        But unfortunately, that’s unrealistic. I am married and I have a 9 year old daughter, and being a family man, it is obligatory that I travel and show them the world. I still travel smartly and manage to avoid the usual money sucking big overrated enterprises like Disney. We have traveled to Mexico, Canada, Alaska, Hawaii to name a few places in the last 3 years.

        Of course I have ensured that my daughter’s college fund is plush with money.

        Yes, there is a balance, because while you could be paying off your debt, you are not getting any younger, and living like a monk should not turn you into a bitter person devoid of life’s experiences. As long as you can get those experiences as cheaply as possible while making big dents in your debt, that’s the way to go.

  • Reply Barry @ Moneywehave November 6, 2014 at 5:46 pm

    Although I’m all for travel, I usually advise paying off student debt first before travelling. That being said if you’re able to budget your trips and not take on additional debt, while paying off your student loans I suppose I’m not totally against it.

    Here’s some other experts weighing in on the Financial Post

    • Reply Christine November 6, 2014 at 10:58 pm

      Hey Barry! Thanks for your comment. Personal finance is such a, well, personal thing. Kind of like a diet plan. There are a million ways to lose weight and look great but not all of them will work for you. It’ll take longer for me to pay off my student debts and I’m paying an interest premium because of that but to do what I love, I have no regrets 🙂
      Christine recently posted…Should You Travel While in Debt?My Profile

  • Reply Jacquie November 6, 2014 at 9:55 pm

    I’m hesitant about grouping the debt into good and bad. Mostly because a lot of people spend their student loans foolishly (as I did). People always say I shouldn’t worry about my debt because it’s student loans, but it’s consumer debt disguised as student loans. I do know what you mean, though!! If you’ve just recently come through school it’s different than just racking up credit cards.

    I live to travel, and I sacrifice a lot during my time at home. I bring my lunch every day, limit the takeout coffees, never buy alcohol, watch movies at home or on the cheap days. I also work a second job on weekends, don’t own a car or even buy a bus pass. It’s so strange, though because despite all those sacrifices, people still say I’m “SO LUCKY to be able to travel”. I find it a *little* offensive, because I think most of it is due to deliberate choices and not just luck.

    ANYWAYS, sorry to go on and on. I just love traveling, and I also love your blog (which I just found on the weekend, btw 🙂

    • Reply Christine November 6, 2014 at 11:16 pm

      Glad you found me, Jacquie! And thanks for the blog love 🙂

      Good debt…isn’t that an oxymoron? Haha. You’re right, debt is debt no matter what you call it. But this student debt allowed me to pursue my professional career and earn a living so I’m okay with that. If I was in debt because I have a spending problem, going on nice vacations wouldn’t make sense.

      Sure, I travel and have great adventures but that’s just 1-2 weeks out of the entire year. I spend the majority of my non-vacation days lounging at home, trying not to spend any money! So most people only see the glitzy side of my life 🙂

      It’s always nice to meet other people who value travel as well. Hope you stop by again!
      Christine recently posted…Should You Travel While in Debt?My Profile

    • Reply APD June 27, 2015 at 10:34 am

      A good debt is something that is leveraged to generate income or assets for you. Businesses take on debt all the time when they are expanding business. In fact, mortgage is a generally good debt, because while you are paying the interest, you are generating a 2-3% return on your assets in the form of home appreciation (this is the long term average appreciation of US homes). In today’s low interest world, you can actually break even and also NOT PAY RENT. Mortgage is a solid debt if you have a reasonably priced house in a great school district.

      I disagree with the author about the car loans. Car loans are not a good debt to have because cars depreciate and they depreciate rapidly. For a typical new car in a 5 year loan, you are actually upside down for the first 18 months or so (that’s why they also try to sell you the “gap insurance”). I bought both my cars new because I wasn’t comfortable someone having owned them, but after paying for them for about 3 years, I have changed. I will probably buy my next cars used with cash.

      Student loan like a mortgage is a good loan as long as it is resulting in a higher income and it is contained and not out of control. I was fortunate not to have a student loan (thanks parents) and I will pass the same advantage to my kids.

      Consumer loan is absolutely the worst loan to have (car loans in a way of speaking IS A CONSUMER LOAN, but cars are essential to our way of life now, and usually the interest is FAR lower). There is zero reason to have consumer loans, period. It is not an asset. Just a huge liability with all the unpaid restaurant and travel bills. It seriously diminishes your net worth. Never travel on credit cards. Save for your trip and pay in cash.

  • Reply Liquid November 6, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    I think it’s a tough decision that depends more on just finances. I would have no problem traveling while still in debt. Traveling is a life experience that shouldn’t be missed. 🙂 If it means delaying debt freedom then it’s totally worth it. I’m also not sure how I feel about a car loan. Should that be considered good debt or bad debt? I think it depends on what you’re using the car for.
    Liquid recently posted…Midterm Election Swing TradeMy Profile

    • Reply Christine November 7, 2014 at 9:30 am

      As a fellow PF blogger, I’m really glad you agree with me! I know we don’t have the popular vote but everyone has different life goals. Personally, I want to invest in life experiences. The ROI on that is 0% but the value is priceless to me 🙂
      Christine recently posted…Should You Travel While in Debt?My Profile

  • Reply Kapitalust November 11, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Travelled all over the place as a student and while it added to my total student loan debt load, wouldn’t go back and trade the experience at all. Travelling around Africa, Europe, and Asia are memories that I will cherish forever and the student loans are all paid off and I won’t be remembering those ever again.
    Kapitalust recently posted…Superman SyndromeMy Profile

  • Reply Donny Gamble November 11, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    I think you should travel while in debt, especially if it is for business purposes. Also, while on vacation you never know who you might have the opportunity to meet that could make you more money. As long as you have a budget when you travel, I think everything would be good.
    Donny Gamble recently posted…3 Things You Should Know Before Investing in Physical GoldMy Profile

  • Reply Melanie @ Dear Debt November 13, 2014 at 2:54 am

    I’m new to the blog! Nice to “meet” you. I LOVE traveling too and have a ton of student loan debt. I also had a similar goal of traveling once a year, but I’ve made a choice to go every other year. Some years were tougher than others — I am planning an international trip in 2015!
    Melanie @ Dear Debt recently posted…Do You Need Some Holiday Help?My Profile

  • Reply Jackson February 19, 2015 at 12:14 am

    Geeeze, Im really glad i found this. As a recent grad who takes finances very seriously, I was hesitant to find someone who wanted to travel with student debt. I guess it all boils down to what makes you happy. People always say “Do what makes you happy(or find a job that makes you happy), and the money won’t even matter”. I guess if travelling is your passion then $$ shouldn’t stop you right?

    • Reply Christine February 19, 2015 at 9:45 am

      Well, I’m glad you found me 🙂 I don’t believe life begins after debt but you definitely need to have balance as well. I decrease my student debt payments so that I can also save up for my travels so that’s where I balance things.

      Many people “get” travel but say my passion is, I dunno, scrapbooking. It wouldn’t be smart of me to rack up huge consumer debt all in the name of scrapbooking but it doesn’t mean I can’t scrapbook until I pay off my student debts either. If you can manage both, then why not?
      Christine recently posted…Why You Need an Emergency Fund and How to Start OneMy Profile

  • Reply Giovina November 4, 2015 at 10:34 am

    I went on a big trip the last summer before I graduated because I knew I wouldn’t have that much time off for a long time. Even though I had student loans, they weren’t in repayment yet and I didn’t want to not do a trip I really wanted just because of money. But I have also always been good at saving and budgeting, so I knew it was something I could afford without having to use my credit card. Even now, I’m working and paying off my loans but I still go on trips because it’s something I love, seeing other places and meeting new people from all over. I make other sacrifices, like not drinking and eating out all the time, so I can afford the things that matter to me.

    • Reply Christine November 4, 2015 at 11:40 am

      You’re bang on. There are some people who sacrifice all their wants to pay off their debt faster but instead of sacrificing everything, I only gave up some things so I could still travel. Sure, I probably would’ve shaved a year or two of debt payments by not traveling but I have no regrets.

  • Reply Marcia November 5, 2015 at 2:32 am

    Glad to find someone else out there with the same ideals – couldn’t have said it better myself, it’s all about priorities. Mine too is travel, and I don’t mind doing it on the cheap if that’s what it takes! You’re inspiring. I owe around 70k in debt and climbing. My monthly payments are around $900. I’m managing now, and planning for my travels, but it’s very ambitious to try to travel with that kind of debt. I have yet to come across any travelers with that much debt. I’m still gonna go for it, though. Any additional advice? Wise counsel? Love your blog, by the way. New subscriber.

    • Reply Christine November 11, 2015 at 3:34 pm

      Thanks Marcia! Always love hearing from readers.

      You mention your debt is $70k and climbing…why is that?

  • Reply Rick November 30, 2015 at 2:47 am

    Great post! Most non-travellers I meet assume I must have rich parents or an amazing job to afford my travels but life of the road can be surprisingly cheap if you know how! It’s all about priorities. Mine is travel – easy 🙂

  • Reply Karin December 18, 2015 at 9:15 am

    I’ve done some international traveling when I have a mortgage and car payments, and my credit card debt is minimal (my two cards have low credit lines, which is perfectly fine!) I am a 44-year old single woman with no children. I work a full time job at a state government office, and have lots of paid vacation time. I rent out my spare rooms for extra income, which helps me save up for nice but budget-friendly vacations and still keep up on my expenses.

  • Reply Couch Potato Explorer July 16, 2016 at 5:38 am

    I must admit I somewhat disagree with the ‘avoid travel on bad debt’ angle.

    I think, if you can save the physical cash to pay for your tickets and all that you need, and still pay your monthly loan payment whilst on holiday, then you should do it.

    If you, at any point, need to look to your credit card, you’re not ready yet.

    All debt is bad. There’s no guarantee your car or house will sell, or that something won’t happen to destroy all that you’ve worked for. Just ensure that you’re sensible!

  • Reply Hayley August 7, 2016 at 11:25 am

    I really think it depends on your circumstances and your dedication to eventually pay the debt off. I got myself in to a bit of a sticky situation but have now paid everything off and I feel so free! I’ve just written a blog post about how I did it that I think your readers might find interesting!

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