ONCE IT LOOKED SAFE to travel again, I didn’t waste any time. I jumped on a plane and spent three weeks in the Carolinas. It was a great vacation.
Staying in an Airbnb on Hilton Head Island gave me a much-needed chance to recharge while enjoying the beach. Renting a place on Lake Norman, the largest man-made lake in North Carolina, gave me quality time with two of my grandchildren. It was like breathing freedom again after the long COVID-19 lockdown.
That said, the trip wasn’t cheap. Is it wise to spend so much on travel? Imagine 70-year-old twins, Samuel and Joseph, sharing a cup of coffee and talking about their different life journeys. Samuel traveled the world. When he wasn’t working for the Peace Corps, he was vacationing in a new country. Meanwhile, Joseph rarely left the county where he was born, instead focusing on building his business.
Samuel doesn’t have much of a net worth, but he believes he’s lived a rich life. He can entertain others for hours with his travel stories, although he isn’t sure if his money will last into old age. Finances aside, he pities his twin for leading a sheltered life.
What about Joseph? He’s a prominent member of his community and is worth several million dollars. He is proud of the mark he’s made locally and enjoys his financial security. He wouldn’t change a thing about his life because of the legacy he’s built. He can’t understand how Samuel could end up at 70 years old without financial security.
Who lived “the good life?” I’ve known a lot of Josephs, who are rich financially but impoverished by their narrow understanding of the world. And I’ve known some Samuels, who have great stories to tell but worry about their lack of financial preparation for old age.
The middle road is the path many of us take. We budget as generously as possible for travel but also insist on saving 10% to 15% of our income for retirement. That seems like a good compromise. But what happens in years when money is tight? I was always wired to save, so travel was an easy budget item to cut. I was more of a Joseph than a Samuel.
But that changed after reading Mark Twain. Here’s one of his insights: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
A trip I took to South Africa opened my eyes to what Twain meant. I saw firsthand what life was like in an orphanage full of kids whose parents had died of AIDS. It gave me new compassion. Similarly, moving to Montana at age 50 opened me up to a whole new way of thinking about conservation of our resources. You just won’t get that perspective in the cornfields of Illinois. Even spending six months in an active retirement community in Tucson, Arizona, provided keen insight into the needs of older folks. Twain was right. Travel changes us.
Travel can also create gratitude. How many times have you heard others say they enjoyed their international travels, but it made them appreciate living in America, with our freedom and prosperity?
If I want to be thankful for my life in Montana, all I need to do is leave for several weeks. While I loved my recent East Coast experience, I hated driving down I-95, navigating the crazy traffic and road rage drivers. Give me Montana—where we have more cows than people.
But while I have come to appreciate the benefits of travel, I also know failing to plan for retirement can end in misery. How do we balance those goals? Here are three suggestions for travel in different seasons of life.
First, remember that the young are different from you and me: They can travel on a shoestring. My daughter educated me on “couch surfing.” Basically, you download an app and have access to free housing. The father in me says, “That’s dangerous.” But so was hitchhiking when I was her age.
A safer alternative: Help our kids travel for a gap year before or after college. I didn’t figure this one out until my last child was that age. But it was probably the best year of her life, in part because she got to experience the developing world. I’ve come to believe it’s a great idea to travel before we get tied down by work and family responsibilities.
Second, if our career is in full swing, we shouldn’t just use our paid time-off for travel. Also consider getting a job that’ll take you to different parts of the country or the world. Military service has provided this alternative for years. Some civilian jobs also offer this perk.
If a job with travel isn’t available and you’re budget constrained, look into going abroad with a religious or nonprofit mission. These trips are often considered charitable work and folks pay for them by raising money. The trips can be short term and fit in with paid time-off. In many cases, they’re more rewarding than staying at a five-star resort.
Third, as we enter the golden age of retirement, take advantage of the opportunity to travel before health issues prevent it. As we age, there’s a risk we’ll get set in our ways. Travel can be a great antidote—helping us to keep an open mind to new ideas and the way that others live.
Joe Kesler is the author of Smart Money with Purpose and the founder of a website with the same name, which is where a version of this article first appeared. He spent 40 years in community banking, assisting small businesses and consumers. Joe served as chief executive of banks in Illinois and Montana. He currently lives with his wife in Missoula, Montana, spending his time writing on personal finance, serving on two bank boards and hiking in the Rocky Mountains. Check out Joe’s previous articles.