Yesterday, I gave a presentation on my “Be Your Own CFO” concept to subscribers of Leo Babauta’s Sea Change program. For an hour, I talked about how (and why) to treat your personal finances as if you were managing a small business.

As always, one of the key components of my message was that people ought to do what they can to save money on the big stuff. By making smart choices in just three areas — housing, transportation, and income — you can achieve outstanding personal profit with minimal effort. That is, you can create a huge gap between your earning and spending if you’ll take steps to reduce your housing costs, trim your transportation expense, and increase your income.

Obviously, these things are easier said than done. If you’ve already bought a large, expensive house in suburbia, it’s tough to simply say, “I’m out of here.” For one, it takes time to sell your place and move into something smaller (and cheaper). For another, if you’re accustomed to a certain lifestyle, the transition to something more minimal can be shocking at first. (Although, from the people I’ve talked to, once the transition is made, it’s easy to maintain the new modest lifestyle.)

What was different about yesterday’s presentation, though, was the role that cost of living played in my thoughts — if not my actual delivery.

Right now, Kim and I are stranded in rural South Dakota. While driving from the Badlands to De Smet (real-life site of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “little town on the prairie”), our RV engine blew up. For the past week, we’ve been stuck in Plankinton (population 707) while we wait for a new engine to arrive and be installed.

I won’t pretend that Plankinton is paradise. It’s hot and humid here. There’s little to do besides sit and drink beer with the locals during the evening. (Which is fun, don’t get me wrong.) There aren’t a lot of job opportunities. The socio-political vibe doesn’t match our own.

What Plankinton does have, however, is cheap prices. This morning, for instance, I paid $10.60 for a fancy men’s haircut. At home in Portland, I pay $28 for the same fancy haircut. Six weeks ago, I paid $30 for the same cut in Fort Collins, Colorado. In Santa Barbara, California, I paid $50 or $60 for the same fancy cut.

Gas is cheaper here too. So is food. So is beer and whisky. So are movies. So is just about everything, including housing. Housing prices follow a similar pattern to the haircut prices I mentioned above. A $280,000 home in Portland might go for $300,000 in Fort Collins and $500k to $600k in Santa Barbara. Here in South Dakota, that same home would cost about $106,000.

Cost of living differences can be huge from one country to another, from one state to another, and from one city to another. In large cities, there are even differences between neighborhoods. (Groceries are more expensive in Portland’s posh West Hills than in low-rent Oak Grove, for instance.)

For fun, take a look at CNN’s cost-of-living calculator, which will allow you to compare expenses from one city to another. For instance, here’s the difference between home and here:

Cost of living comparison
My money would last longer if I wanted to live in South Dakota. But I don’t.

The lesson here? If you truly want to achieve a Big Win on your housing costs, it pays to expand your search, to take into account cost of living. If you have a fixed budget, you’ll get more bang for your buck by buying a house in Oklahoma City or Sioux Falls than by purchasing in San Francisco or Seattle. If, like me, your work is location independent, it makes much more sense to live in Omaha, Nebraska than New York City. Your income is the same in both places; but in Omaha, your get much more for your money.

Now, obviously there’s more to consider in a decision like this than pure price. As I always say, money management is more about mindset than math. We are emotional creatures, and we don’t make financial decisions based purely on the numbers. When you choose a place to live, you do so because of the climate, the politics, and the people. You want to live close to friends and family. You want a nice school district. You want people who think and act the same way you do. For those reasons (and others), South Dakota might not be a good choice for you.

But I believe you should take cost of living into account when deciding where to live. Housing is far and away the largest piece of the average American budget, roughly one-third of the typical household spending. The best way to cut your costs (and, therefor, boost your profit/savings) is to reduce how much you spend on housing. And the first step in reducing your housing expense is to choose a cheap place to live.

Note: Other ways to make the most of your housing budget? Live close to where you work so that you can walk, bike, or take the bus. (I don’t think I’ll ever live anywhere else that I cannot walk for my daily errands and my work. The health and financial benefits are just too great to live somewhere that I have to drive all the time.) Choose to buy as little home as you can get away with rather than the commonly cited “buy as much home as you can afford”. The latter is self-serving advice from real-estate agents and mortgage brokers. You don’t need a big place. You just need a comfortable place.

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As Kim and I slowly make our way across the United States, we’re learning a lot, both about ourselves (individually and as a couple) and about others. We’re spending extended time with family and friends, and we’re meeting strangers in the places we stay. Through this constant exposure to a diverse population of people, we’ve come to realize how each of us tends to live out the stories we tell ourselves.

Many people we’ve met, for instance, are living a story in which taking a year off to travel is impossible. It’s not that taking a year off to travel is actually impossible for them, but that these folks believe it’s impossible, and that’s the story they live.

At the same time, there’s a small handful of people who decide to live a different story. We met a man near Sedona, Arizona who had been living the “I can’t travel” story but decided to re-write the ending. He quit his corporate job on the east coast and moved to Arizona with only the vague outline of a plan. He’s now giving donation-based tours of the Sedona area while maintaining a modest lifestyle. He decided to live a different story, one that (so far) has a happier ending.

We don’t just tell ourselves about travel. We tell ourselves stories about every aspect of our lives — and most of these stories can be changed, if we have the guts and gumption to change them.

  • We all know folks who live stories in which they are the victim of circumstances, in which fate has laid them low. My mother is a prime example. Ever since she was a girl, she’s told herself a story in which her mother didn’t like her and favored her siblings. She’s allowed that story to dominate her life, to define her as much at sixty as she did at sixteen. My father tried for decades to get her to live a different story, but he failed.
  • My ex-wife lived a story in which she hated camping. She didn’t want to spend the night outdoors in a tent or a camper or anything else. In this story, camping was a bother. Now, thanks in part to her current boyfriend, she’s re-written this small part of her life. Today, Kris enjoys camping and how close it brings her to the outdoors (especially birds!).
  • As part of the story I told myself, I was an introvert. I didn’t like meeting new people. I couldn’t make small talk and I was overwhelmed by crowds. But in discovering the power of “yes”, I changed the story I was telling myself. I discovered (decided?) that I enjoyed chatting with strangers, that meeting new people was part of playing the lottery of life. Now I’m happy to make new friends.

Generally speaking, no one story is more true than any other. Each tale is simply a different way of viewing our life. If one story makes us unhappy or uncomfortable, it’s possible to tell ourselves a different version of the story, one that creates a more positive experience. (It’s like the story of the blind men and the elephant.)

My mom’s story that her mother treated her poorly didn’t have to dominate her life for fifty-plus years. At any time, she could have chosen to live a different story. But she didn’t. Now it’s probably too late.

Similarly, I know folks who’ve struggled with family members or former friends. They’ve fought over something and the relationships have suffered as a result. These folks tend to tell themselves stories in which they cannot repair the relationships because the other party has made it impossible to do so. But again, that’s just a story. In almost every case, it’s possible to write a different ending, one in which the person repairs his relationships by choosing to tell himself a different ending.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with my friend Tyler Tervooren. He and I were both going through a lot of life changes, and we were each trying to re-write parts of the stories we’d been telling ourselves. Tyler shared a technique he was using to change his belief systems.

“I have a list of qualities I want in myself,” he told me. “I’ve written them on index cards in a specific format and I read these to myself every day.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “one card might say, ‘I am the sort of man who always keeps his promises.’ Another might say, ‘I am the type of man who makes exercise a priority.’ I have about twenty of these cards, and I review them every day. This is a way for me to stay focused on what’s important to me, and to remind myself of my values.”

What a great idea!

The bottom line is this: If you don’t like the story you’re living, only you can change it. You are the author of your own life. You didn’t write the beginning of the story, but you have the power to choose the ending. In so many ways, life is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Choose an adventure you love instead of one that makes you unhappy.

I know, I know. All of this is easier said than done. Once you’re thirty or forty or fifty years old, you’ve had decades to tell yourself certain parts of your story. You may have written yourself into a corner. Changing plotlines can be difficult. Still, it is possible — and nobody else is going to change the storylines for you. It’s up to you to live the story you want.

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So far, so good.

Kim and I are now 52 days, 2500 miles, and $4000 into our planned year-long RV trip. We’ve made it to Page, Arizona, which sits just south of the Utah border. (Technically, our RV is currently parked a few feet into Utah, but we’re counting this as time in Arizona. Because it is.)

In many ways, this trip has gone better than expected. We both enjoy the nomadic lifestyle, spending a few days in one place before moving on to the next. We are learning so much about this country’s culture and geography. Already, books and movies are gaining “texture” that might otherwise have been missing. (Example: While listening to The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency yesterday, the description of the mine made more sense because we’d taken a mine tour in Bisbee, Arizona two week ago.)

Entering the Copper Queen mine
Entering the Copper Queen mine in Bisbee

The combination of our motorhome and Mini Cooper has worked well, and we’re making constant small improvements. We picked up a seven-dollar crockpot at a thrift store in Oceanside, California, for instance, so that we can bulk-prepare meals. And yesterday we bought a cast-iron skillet to replace the cheap piece of junk we’ve put up with for the past two months.

Through it all, our relationship seems to be getting stronger rather than weaker. We truly enjoy spending time together, especially when we’re exploring.

Having fun in gorgeous Antelope Canyon
Having fun in gorgeous Antelope Canyon

Not everything about the trip is awesome, of course. There are downsides of differing degrees. For instance:

  • For both of us, the scariest moments on the road have involved driving — especially in southern California. (I loathe SoCal traffic, from Sacramento on south. Drivers are often rude and reckless, which is not fun to be around in an RV.) We had a frightening few hours on narrow L.A. freeways as we made our way from Santa Barbara to Palm Springs, but the worst moment was when we inadvertently ended up on a narrow dike road outside Sacramento, with no shoulder, no turn-offs, and a gusting wind.
  • It sucks to be away from friends for so long. We miss our people in Portland, and wish there were some way to see them. We had a chance to meet up with our good friend Bret in Phoenix, but the timing didn’t work. Fortunately, we’ve spent much of the first seven weeks hanging out with Kim’s family. But now we’ve run out of Stevenses and Edwardses to socialize with.
Kim plays with her nephew, Porter, as a thunderstorm approaches
Kim plays with her nephew as a thunderstorm approaches the Sierra Nevadas

  • There’s so much to see! That’s a good thing, of course, but it also creates this artificial pressure to get out of the RV and explore our surroundings. It seems wrong to take a down day. That pressure goes so far as to make it tough to write — whether for here, for our travel blog, or four our families. Writing this particular is a luxury, and one I’m enjoying only because I woke early and left Kim to sleep a while longer.
  • Costs are higher than we’d hoped. Going into this trip, we didn’t have a true idea of what we’d be spending. We had budgeted $2000 per month (which is about $500 per week or $67 per day). Our actual spending has been about 25% higher than that, and that doesn’t include non-trip expenses such as novels, souvenirs (I’m buying lapel pins at major stops), or “date nights”. Those come out of a non-trip account. Fortunately, our spending has decreased over the past few weeks. We’ve learned how to dry camp on Forest Service land (free!), and we’re putting the afore-mentioned crockpot to good use. Plus, early RV and Mini expenses were one-time only. We hope…
  • Lastly, we’ve had occasional lapses in communication. When these occur, we get cranky with each other. Fortunately, we’re quick to resolve them and have come to recognize that we simply need to make our expectations and desires clear to each other.

Although we don’t have as much “work time” as we had expected — as you can tell by the fact that I haven’t had time to write here at Foldedspace! — we’re still taking steps to document the trip as it happens. Kim and I are both keeping journals. (Mine is very basic: where we were, what we did, what we spent.) We’re also taking tons of photographs — and a handful of videos. We post the best of these on Facebook and Instagram, and I’m trying to share highlights now and then at Far Away Places.

J.D. stopped to take MANY photos
We were lucky to tour Joshua Tree when it was cloudy and rainy.
The weather added texture to everything.

Lastly, I’ve been logging a variety of statistics in a spreadsheet. That’s how I know we’ve spent $3987.09 on this trip so far (again, not counting personal expenses); when we drive the motorhome, we’re getting an average of 7.7 miles per gallon and an average speed of 41.21 miles per hour; we’ve spent 64% of our nights in RV parks, 26% with family, 8% boondocking, and 2% (one night) in a hotel; and so on. Yes, I am a nerd.

In some ways, this trip is lasting longer than expected. We’ve been on the road for almost two months, and we’ve only been to California and Arizona! At this rate, it’ll take us four years to criss-cross the United States. On the other hand, the time also seems to be rushing by. There are so many places to see and so many people to meet.

Kim shows her grandfather photos of our trip.
Kim shows her grandfather photos of our trip.

Yesterday we took the short walk into Horseshoe Bend. While taking dozens of photos with the other tourists, I chatted with a man from Arkansas who’s out here with his family. “I’ve never been out of the U.S.,” he told me. “I always wanted to visit other countries, but this vacation has made me realize there’s so much to see here. I could spend a lifetime exploring my own country, let alone the world.”

Exactly. That’s probably the biggest realization Kim and I have had on this trip too. We knew the U.S. was vast — it’s something we always tell folks from other countries who talk about coming to New York and simply popping over to L.A. — but we never appreciated how vast.

Devil's Bridge behind Sedona
Devil’s Bridge behind Sedona (click for larger version)

We’re okay with the vastness. That means there’s more beauty for us to see, more people to meet, more places to sit and meditate and feel lucky to be alive. Now, however, it’s time to leave Page, Arizona and move on to Monument Valley. From there, we think we’ll swing north before crossing into Colorado. But who knows? Mostly, we’re making this up as we go along. And that’s half of the fun…

We're happy to have seen Arizona. Now it's on to other states!

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“I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains…” — John Muir

Whenever I conceive of some bold idea, it comes with a potent mixture of enthusiasm and fear. I’m eager to pursue my new plan but worried about the consequences that might come as a result. What if something goes wrong? What if I haven’t thought things through? What if I fail? What if I succeed?

Sometime last spring, Kim came to me and said, “We should buy an RV, and then we should take a trip across the country.”

I embraced the idea immediately. I’ve always wanted to do a cross-country road trip, but never felt like I had the time or the resources. Plus, I didn’t have anybody to do it with. (Kris was never keen on this kind of adventure.) Now, however, I have all three: the time, the resources, and the companion. Kim planted the idea in my head — and it took root.

We didn’t do anything about this theoretical cross-country RV trip for a long time. Neither of us has ever owned a recreational vehicle. And although Kim has spent some time in motorhomes and trailers, the whole notion of buying and owning an RV seemed somehow overwhelming. For me, it was a brand new world filled with unfamiliar jargon and terminology, a world full of big expenses. Plus, making a trip like this poses massive logistical challenges:

  • Where would we store an RV before and after our trip?
  • How would we budget for the upfront expense? The ongoing expenses?
  • What should we do with our condo while we’re away?
  • What would Kim do about her job?
  • How would we handle mail? Friendships? Other ongoing obligations?
  • Could our relationship survive months (or more) in close quarters?

We spent several months cogitating on the idea, taking no action. We talked with others who had made similar trips, picking their brains about the pros and the cons of long-term travel on the road. We looked at trailers and motorhomes, trying to decide which features we liked and which we loathed. We read. We watched videos.

Last autumn, we finally started making some moves. We attended the Portland RV show and began looking at RVs on Craigslist. After a few months, we purchased an RV of our own: a 2005 Bigfoot 30MH29SL. We spent a few weeks prepping the rig for adventure and, finally, last weekend we took it out for its maiden voyage.


Here’s a quick video tour of our rig…

I’m pleased to report that everything went swimmingly. We love it.

As I say, whenever I make a big move like this — and this move cost us $38,000 up front and will take about a year of our lives — my excitement is mixed with trepidation. In this case, the trepidation appears to be unfounded. During four days in the Columbia Gorge, Kim and I had a hell of a lot of fun. Sure, we encountered a handful of challenges (a water heater that wouldn’t heat, a campground next to a busy rail line, a dead battery, etc.) but we resolved them easily and moved on. We worked well together.

It’s clear to us now that we can do this crazy little cross-country trip. We don’t know exactly what we’re getting into, but we know we can muddle through whatever misadventures might await. Kim and I have decided that we really will do this crazy thing.

We have an official launch date: We want to hit the road on April 1st. (Yes, we know that’s April Fools Day. Yes, we think we’re funny tempting fate like that.) In four short weeks, we’ll board Bigfoot and drive south, spending some time in northern California (we’ve already booked a camp spot in the Yosemite Valley on April 12th) before winding our way through the Southwest. By mid to late May, we intend to be heading north through Colorado, then Idaho and Wyoming (hello, Yellowstone!) and Montana.

At some point, we’ll head east (through Canada? through the Dakotas? we’re not sure…) to Minneapolis. We intend to be in Charlotte, North Carolina in mid-September for a conference, but our plans between Montana and North Carolina are vague. After the conference, we’ll stick on the East Coast to see the fall colors and to explore New York. As autumn moves to winter, we’ll wend our way to Florida, and then to New Orleans. By Christmas, we think we’ll be exploring Texas, which everyone tells us will take at least a month. And after that? Who knows?

Our map of places to see
Our current map of potential places to see. There’s so much!

As you can see, our plans are a little nebulous. That’s fine with us. Our motto as a couple has been, “Go with the flow.” We intend to keep it that way. It’s not the destination that’s important to us, but the journey. We want to embrace the spirit of adventure, to take time to get to know the people and the country we encounter. We fully expect our plans to change along the way.

Note: As we travel, I’ll continue to publish here at foldedspace. I’ll even share bits and pieces from the road. But if you want to read travel-specific info, you should subscribe to Far Away Places, our travel blog. Over the past two months, I’ve quietly been prepping that site for prime time. It’s ready enough now to point you in that direction. At Far Away Places, we’ll publish photos and stories documenting our trip, plus lots of other stuff about life on the road. If you don’t want to follow another site, have no fear. If there’s anything truly important, I’ll cross-post it here.

When this trip is over, we’re not sure what we’ll do. Maybe we’ll return to the comfortable life we currently enjoy. Maybe we’ll pack up and repeat this process in Australia or Europe or South America. Maybe we’ll become even bolder, reduce our belongings to a bare minimum, and then backpack across the world (as our friends Scott and Chelsea are doing this year). Or maybe we’ll find someplace along the way that feels so much like home that we stop and stay and never leave.

Whatever our future holds, we’re eager to get started. Our test run last weekend was wonderful, and now we feel like high-school Seniors. We know we have to finish some final work, but we can’t wait to get out there and live on our own in the Real World.

Adventure awaits!

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12 February 2015

How to Survive Long Flights

My friend Lane wrote the other day with a question: Do you have an article somewhere talking about how to survive long flights? I’m making my first ever trip to Europe in May and have no idea what I am in for on the flight! Unfortunately, I’ve never written about this topic before. So, I […]

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4 February 2015

My Experience with an IRS Audit (Video Edition)

After my complaints that I performed poorly during my interview with Yahoo Finance last week, it’s interesting to see how everything turned out. Here’s the article and video about my experience being audited by the IRS: It’s instructive to see how professionals take thirty minutes of footage and edit everything down to two minutes, fifteen […]

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28 January 2015

Never Give Up: In Praise of Failing Forward

I was interviewed this morning for a segment on Yahoo Finance. It didn’t go nearly as well as I had hoped. I was nervous. I fumbled when I spoke. I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say, even though I was speaking about my own experience. Here I am, talking to thin air… As I […]

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21 January 2015

The KonMari Method: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

I stopped by to visit with my friend Amy Jo the other day. While reading this blog, she had noticed I made an off-hand comment about wanting to sell my old laptop. “I’ll buy it,” she said. “Great,” I said. “And while I’m at it, I’ll bring Ossley some books. I’m purging again.” Long-time readers […]

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7 January 2015

No More Back Broken: Thoughts on the Creative Process

I’ve written a lot about building confidence and overcoming fear. It’s something I wrestle with all of the time. Despite all of the things I’ve accomplished, I’m always apprehensive about starting something new. People have liked what I’ve done in the past; will they like what I do in the future? Via Andy, here’s an […]

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31 December 2014

Checklists for Daily Life

Recently, one of my readers pointed me to an old New Yorker article from Atul Gawande. In “The Checklist”, Gawande describes how one simple change seems to be revolutionizing medicine: the use of checklists. Modern medicine is complicated. There’s a lot of stuff that doctors and nurses need to know and do in order to […]

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