My historic go-to in a so-called desert period, or gap between work or scholastic assignments, has consistently been travel. When funds or timing did not allow my imagination to be expanded with travel, I have relied on books, documentaries, and subtitled films to stand in and do this work while I physically stayed in one region. Reading and travel are relatively inexpensive education and value producing activities in a world of depreciating assets and liabilities.
Quite simply, you can afford to see the world by simply not ever ordering drinks or appetizers in restaurants, spending an extra day shopping for the best flight ticket prices, and being creative or flexible about your accommodations when traveling. If that is out of reach, you can check out books from the library and essentially experience the world without having to go anywhere or spend any money.
When embarking on travel, one hears friends and family asking “how can you afford to travel so much? Are you just playing around?” The truth is, I have been to 31 countries and because I shopped around for deals and stayed in youth hostels (check out hostelworld.com to see some of these locations – their reviewing system really prevents a lot of danger and heartache), and by being strategic with this, I spent far less on doing it than on all my used cars combined, and I estimate about half of what my higher education cost, though the latter is somewhat blended with travel. There is nothing wrong with taking package tours or cruises, especially if your time is limited, you have a higher income, and you don’t want to think out a trip. However, it is more cost effective to see several countries at over an extended period and it’s also better for the environment to see a lot of places at once than to make several trips to see one or two countries for a week or two.
If you travel extensively, you are more likely to be a critical thinker when it comes to international diplomacy and reason and be able to think in a more abstract, contextualized way. From a purely fiscal standpoint, if you know that you are going to be changing houses or changing vehicles or the like, you can time your travels so that you are not paying rent and mortgages and it can actually be cheaper to be traveling than it is to maintain a house or apartment.
Books and film with an educational or cultural value are something that produce value to multiple people with very little overhead. I recently went into a bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas called The Raven Bookstore that has extremely well-vetted literature selections. I hesitated for a long time to spend about $25 there because I am very careful with my spending, but I had to take a step back and ask myself 1) Do I want authors to be compensated to produce good work? Yes. 2) Do I want this bookstore to exist and for the clever people there to have satisfying work? Definitely yes. 3) Is $25 worth of education going to come to me from this? Yes, and I could sell the books for a reduced amount or give them to a library and provide residuals to the community.
That said, your time and funds must be spent judiciously. There are times when you want to read for fun or see a beautiful place just because you can, but more often than not you want to try to extract something from it that will pay you back either in having more apt responses in the workplace to better engagement with friends facing problems, compete better in an exam or job interview, or establishing another base or two in other locations to escape to periodically. Where you can go “wrong,” I caution, is that in my case I pursued so many interests, angles, businesses, friendships, cultures, subjects, and what-have-you that I spread myself too thin over hundreds of contacts in a dozen countries and states and could not focus. Therefore, when I have the chance to meet and mentor people in their early 20s in particular, I tell them to consider focusing on a couple of places of interest and to not pursue intellectual interests to the point of impracticality or delusion because the payoff gets watered down as a result. You can relate to lots and lots of people but not be able to get them all to interact together and it becomes incredibly frustrating in a world of specializations and market and demographic segmentation.
Before thinking that travel is a luxury or reading is a waste of time, truly break down the costs and try to think outside of the box for how to place a value on these investments in comparison with the mundane, bourgeois, or necessary things in your life now. If you are not able to afford a budget trip – and most of us have experienced this dearth of time or other resources – living in an age of literacy and information should give you a comparable free substitute in a book or movie.
–I’ve written on some of the merits of hostels before, which you can read here: Hostelling Rite of Passage.