The first time I video-chatted with my 67-year-old mother, Meri Murphy, she was staying at a youth hostel in South Africa. As we talked, young, tanned adventurers crossed the screen behind her. “Only $19 a night. What a deal, right?” she exclaimed, and then called over a woman half her age whom she had been biking with that day.
Maximizing money while traveling abroad has always been one of my mother’s great skills. As a divorced psychologist living in California’s Bay Area, she had to be careful about finances, but never let that stop her from traveling. This meant that vacations might involve sleeping in hammocks in Venezuela or relying on a blend of hitchhiking and public buses in Mexico.
In 2010, she retired from her job directing a mental health program at a prison in Airway Heights, Wash., and set out to travel the world. Even I was startled when she said she had devised a financial strategy that could support her “forever.” The plan included sticking to a $65-a-day budget and minimizing health insurance costs by using local doctors whenever possible. My mother’s way is not for everybody; still, I suspect there are lessons for others on a limited budget who crave adventure in retirement.
I recently spoke with her via Skype, this time at her residential hotel in South Dakota, where she has taken a temporary job with the Veterans Administration in Fort Meade for some extra cash. She had been thinking of buying an apartment where she last lived, in Spokane, so she would not have to rent between trips. Since then she’s changed her mind, deciding the money could be better used for travel.
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Q: Can you list some of the countries you’ve been to in your nearly three years of retirement?
A: I’m pretty sure I can. Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Oman and South Africa. Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi, Rwanda. Then I went to Germany and England and then back to the States and then some trips to Canada and then I went to Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador.’
Q: That’s a lot.
A: I’m very pleased as I slowly make my way toward my goal.
Q: And that would be?
A: To see the whole world before I die.
Q: When you told people your retirement plans, what was the reaction?
A: I think it was just so bizarre, they didn’t react.
Q: It surprised me that you had the money to retire at 65. You’ve always been reluctant even to spend money eating out or taking cab.
A: True, I didn’t save much, but I still expected to live my dream. It helped that I am so frugal. My Social Security is $1,567 a month after taxes and I receive $1,110 for a government pension, which I didn’t know about until a benefits seminar the year before I retired.
Q: What’s the cost of staying at a hostel?
A: Cost varies greatly, from $9 to $25. I’ve started paying a few extra dollars to have my own room, when possible. A few favorites: Atlantic Point Backpackers in Cape Town, South Africa, is one of the nicest in the world. It was clean and spacious. My dorm room was huge and new, and the women there were friendly. I also stayed in a fabulous hostel in Syria, the Damascus Hostel. That was before the civil war. I wonder how they’re doing now.
Q: Was there ever anyone your age?
A: Never. Not by 30, 40 years.
Q: What if you get sick?
A: I have Medicare and discounted health insurance through the state, but that doesn’t work for long-term overseas travel, so I always have travel insurance. My basic conclusion is that seeing a doctor is very cheap in these countries. In Syria, I went to a dermatologist for $12. In Peru, a visit to the dentist was $14. If I’m critically ill, the travel insurance pays to fly me back to the U.S. And if I’m worried I’m going to be sick, I can just fly home, where I know I’m covered.
Q: What percentage of your possessions would you say you got rid of to prepare for your retirement travels?
A: Oh, maybe 50 percent. I remember the first decision was, “What do I do about my house?” I got specialists to advise me and found out that renting would not have been a good financial decision because I still owed too much on the house. Part of what gave me the ability to sell without feeling conflicted was it was a means toward an end. I was going to go see the world.
Q: What if you want some place to come back to?
A: For most people, owning a home is a very deeply entrenched value. I myself never had that.
Q: Do you remember there was one time, I was around 10, when I said to you, “Mom I think we really need a new couch.” I was so embarrassed by the one we had. You said, “OK, you want a couch, fine, but that means no vacation.”
A: That’s right, you picked out the one with the stripes. I always trusted your taste more than mine.
Q: Was that one of the things you got rid of?
A: Yes. That striped couch ended up being donated to the Salvation Army.
Q: How did young people at the hostels react to you?
A: I never felt I was being reacted to in a special way. People started conversations and we would do things together, biking, hike up a volcano, have a meal. Except they knew I didn’t want to stay out late partying.
Q: Was there a problem with people partying, while you were trying to sleep?
A: I knew to stay away from hostels where words like “party” and “night life” are prominently featured, so that really didn’t come up. It’s like they had their hostel manners and they know not to make noise.
Q: How did you have confidence that you’d be able to travel so cheaply?
A: It helped that I had lived in the Philippines in my 30s when your father worked there. I really was stunned by how cheap it is in third-world countries. We’re talking like 2-bucks-a-day cheap. So I knew that it was absolutely doable to see the whole world, maybe not the first world, but most of the world isn’t the first world anyway.
Q: What were some of the worst hostels?
A: One that stands out in my mind as a big mistake was in Mozambique in Maputo. Someone had alarmed me that during high tourist season, it’s going to be packed so I grabbed the first lodging I could get. It was a crowded dorm. I think one of the girls in one of the upper bunks sat down and her whole bed collapsed. Thank God no one was in the lower.
Q: That’s scary.
A: Yes, while I was there, I met these lovely young women that I ended up spending a lot of time with.
Q: Are people surprised you’re traveling by yourself?
A: Yes, everybody was. I have started describing myself as being in a bubble like Mr. Magoo because I just go around thinking everyone is wonderful and they usually are.
Q: I remember occasionally being alarmed by your emails. Especially the one from Lesotho.
A: A beautiful, beautiful country. What happened is when I hitched a ride, I left my daypack in the pickup so I had to track down that vehicle to get the pack back. By then, it was late. It started to rain and hail. I thought I was going to have to huddle under a rock, but then as it got dark, a car was coming. I stood in the middle of the road and flagged them down. Then when I got to the hostel, there was no electricity, no running water. It wasn’t like it was off. There just wasn’t any ever. The worst was dinner time. I opened a can of tuna fish I had with me. The guy who owned the place, who did not speak English, sat down at the table and I felt like I had to make conversation. I was so tired that I did not want to, and then this little boy came over. I think it was his grandson, and I ended up giving them both half my food because I felt so badly. They looked hungry.
Q: When you got back from South America, it seemed like you were thinking of buying a place in Spokane to have a home base. You seemed ready to slow down. Do you still feel that way?
A: Absolutely not. I’m just going to go to Spokane for a week or two and then head out for an indefinite journey.