Go Away

Joe Kesler

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.

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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.

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11 months ago

Travel isn’t what it used to be; it changed with 9/11 and then covid. My career was in the airline industry. It was fun to do day trips in the USA, and weekend trips to Europe and other destinations. Being retired now, I no longer desire to travel by air.

11 months ago

Thanks for the great essay Joe. My wife and I have had the privilege of traveling abroad for work years ago with our children when they were young. Now as young adults, they’ve traveled independently and often on a shoestring. As Dutch friends of ours once remarked about their own children – traveling helps us all become better citizens of the world.

Philip Karp
Philip Karp
11 months ago

Younger adults sometimes get the travel bug and travel on and on.

Reminds me of this poem:

The Men That Don’t Fit In
There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
   A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
   And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
   And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
   And they don’t know how to rest.

If they just went straight they might go far;
   They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
   And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
   What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
   Is only a fresh mistake. 

And each forgets, as he strips and runs
   With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
   Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
   Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
   In the glare of the truth at last. 

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
   He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
   And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
   He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
   He’s a man who won’t fit in.

Roboticus Aquarius
Roboticus Aquarius
11 months ago

Enjoyable post. We have always enjoyed travel, but had to limit it to the US for the most part until our kids were grown. We’re looking forward to experiencing other countries and cultures…

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
11 months ago

Great article Joe. I was lucky (?) enough to travel extensively for work over many years, including several years of frequent travel to Europe. It is great being exposed to other cultures, but working with other cultures is another thing. I’ve had to learn to work with French, German, Russian, UK, Japanese, and South Korean engineers. I learned from each occasion.

My other thought is you can travel fairly cheaply if you try. My wife and our two children camped all over the east coast and Canada out of our 1984 Chevy Cavalier station wagon, Sears cabin tent, and a homemade camping box. When our kids approached the teenage yers, we upgraded to a used pop-up trailer for $900. We pulled it with a mini-van. They are some of our family’s greatest memories.

Joe Kesler
Joe Kesler
11 months ago
Reply to  Rick Connor

Great comments Rick. I still do a few days each year in a tent with family. Teaching the grandkids the joy of camping and thrift. Nothing like making you appreciate your bed like sleeping on an air mattress for a couple nights.

James McGlynn CFA RICP®
James McGlynn CFA RICP®
11 months ago

Agreed. But traveling now internationally be prepared to take Covid tests coming and going withing 72 hours of flying-even if vaccinated. Even most “open” countries require them. Just seeing that the U.S. has surplus covid vaccination shots makes me appreciate how lucky we are.

R Quinn
R Quinn
11 months ago

You beat me to it Joe, I’ve been working on a article for Jonathan on the same topic, travel. You are 100% correct, travel is so necessary to understand so many things about ourselves and the world. I was talking with a very rich man and casually asked when he was last in Europe, naively thinking he was well traveled. “Never been out of the US and have no intention of doing so,” was his curt reply.

Not until I retired was I out of the US, (except maybe the two years in the army in Alabama), but since we have been to 45 countries, including Russia, Israel, Ukraine, Malta, Morocco, Argentina.

I can’t see how any of us can appreciate what we have until we understand other people and societies. I can tell you having a rifle pointed at me in the Kremlin for stepping off the sidewalk and seeing a sign in Israel warning that if we continued down the road we may be killed opened my eyes. So did visiting a widow somewhere in the wilds of Russia living on $150 a month, but nothing has stuck with me more than Auschwitz.
We have made friends in England and Paris who we communicate with regularly and visit when we can and they visit us.

At 82 it is getting harder for my wife to handle the rigors of travel, but we are still hoping for more even if we have to settle for cruises.

11 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

Some love to travel, and some don’t. If you don’t, it doesn’t make you a bigot or shallow. Some of the most open-minded and kind people I know haven’t travelled much at all and don’t seek it. I myself love to travel, and back-packed across Australia once before I was married. But many I know don’t feel the urge to travel and don’t. The idea that I’m somehow higher minded than those of different preferences is just silly.

Joe Kesler
Joe Kesler
11 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

Thanks Richard, but after reading your comments I would love to see you do a full article on travel. I did a couple laugh out louds reading about having the rifle pointed at you for stepping off the sidewalk and the Israel story. Would love to hear more!

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