Short answer: priorities and thrift
Shockingly, just an expansion of my short answer. Travel is one of the most important things in my life. I love pulling on my backpack and heading to a new place. And I love this so much that I am willing to forego other pleasantries in order to save money to provide for travel.
This ties to my greater philosophy of money management. For me, managing money is surprisingly easy, but I recognize that the same cannot be said for everyone. In my life, finance has two components: prioritize your spending, and spend less than you earn. I try to spend significantly less than I earn in order to maximize my savings. In a few jobs, I’ve put away 50% or more of my paycheck every month, but this took a lot of dedication to the cause. In my current job, I make significantly less than I made as a grad student, so I’ve cut back my standard of living. I haven’t yet been out to eat in the town where I live (tho I did go out to eat when I was back in Ann Arbor last week), and I’m not intending to make any big purchases any time soon. I also try to avoid Target to minimize any impulse retail purchases. This strategy works for me because I care so much about traveling and am willing to value that higher than other aspects of my life.
Different people have different priorities. When I talk to people who want to travel, they are always impressed by all the places I’ve been but sadly say that they can’t afford to travel. Most of these people often earn many times more than I’ve ever earned in my life, but they’ve made different choices with their money than I have. I truly think almost anyone with a decent job could potentially afford to travel but must make the travel a priority in their life. In addition to foregoing eating out, I also choose to live with roommates, use energy conservation measures, and (mostly) avoid alcohol. All of these choices allow me to add more money to my bottom line, and this money can be used to head out on an international adventure. I’ve been known to say “well, I’d love to have a wii. But $400 is probably an entire week-long vacation in Dublin minus the airfare. So, wii or potential trip to Dublin?” Even with a $20 purchase, I can say “DVD or night in a hostel?” Hosteling almost always wins out.
Another thing that helps me with saving for travel is having a goal in mind. It is far easier to save for a trip to New Zealand rather than save with the amorphous goal of traveling. A corollary to this is being sure to bank enough cash prior to the trip to fully fund the trip. It is far more enjoyable to work overtime with the mantra “Kia Ora; New Zealand, here I come!” than to work overtime to pay off a bloated credit card bill. I started saving for my April ’06 trip to NZ in the summer of ’05. I cooked all my own meals, rarely turned on my lights, and chose not to get internet at home (I visited the library) in order to save money. Furthermore, I picked up an extra job, and I spent a month working 70 hours a week (40 for fish and wildlife and 30 for a motel) for more cash. All of this helped me fully fund my $3,000 budget for my trip, and I was able to enjoy New Zealand without ever worrying about my spending. And even without worries, my trip still came in under budget.
Whatever your goal (traveling, a new road bike, etc), the key is to remember that you have to make this goal a priority in order to fund it. It’s easy to say “oh, I want a new [insert item here].” It is far more difficult to actually fund this item in a guilt-free way, but it is necessary to do so. I’ve found my easiest savings times were when I was seriously concentrated on banking money for my goal. With the goal in mind, I can maintain the discipline to conserve my cash by passing up immediate pleasure for longer-term fulfillment.