Funny Money

I’ve handled lots of currencies by now, and by far the most baffling set of coins I’ve encountered is the British. Not so much how they add up—it’s all on the decimal system—but the sizes and shapes. Look: you’ve got one penny, two pence, five pence, ten pence, twenty pence, fifty pence, one pound, and two pounds. Most of them make little sense as physical things.

The coins of the United Kingdom

What genius decided to make the two pence coin only slightly larger than the ten pence? When you’re feeling around for change in your purse, and you triumphantly emerge with just the coin you need to make that purchase, how crushing to realize you’re still 8p short because all you have is a couple pennies with an inflated sense of importance.

Then there’s the five pence piece, bane of my grandmother’s existence when she’s counting up the change in charity boxes and forever losing sight of them because they’re so tiny. Fiddly little coins, she calls them, and she’s not wrong. They’re so small and light (smaller and lighter than the penny, which is only one-fifth the value, because that makes sense), it’s a wonder anyone can find them in their coin purse at all. I’m pretty sure there’s an alternate universe populated solely by missing socks and millions of 5p pieces.

Why are the twenty pence piece and the fifty pence piece heptagons? Is this another Masonic conspiracy of some sort? Seven’s a significant number, right? Seven deadly sins, seven days in the week, seven wonders of the world, seven dwarves, seven shopping days til Christmas… At least there’s no worry of mixing up these coins with any others; the 50p piece is so large, chipmunks could use it as a dinner plate, and the 20p piece neatly fits within the circumference of the 10p piece, proving that we hold within us the ability to be twice as much as we are.

But there’s one coin you won’t find me puzzling over: the pound. The pound is a perfect coin, slightly smaller than the 10p but thicker than all the other coins, with a heft to it that lets you know immediately you’re holding a coin worth something. It’s thick enough to have writing around the edge; usually it’s the Latin for ‘an ornament and a safeguard,’ but there’s also a Welsh slogan (‘true am I to my country’) and a Scottish one (‘no one provokes me with impunity’—of course that’s the Scottish slogan).

At least it’s better than the former set-up, which worked according to the ancient Roman system, wherein 240 silver pennies equalled one pound of silver. This resulted in things like the half-crown, worth two shillings and a sixpence, which is less than a guinea but more than a tanner, and a few bob was much more than a few farthings, but not always equal to a florin. What? Yes. That foreign language you’re reading in a Dickens novel is the language of a money system standardized in medieval times. Spare a ha’penny, guvnor?

Of course, there are real reasons for these sizes and shapes, mostly related to when the switch from old money to the decimal system was made in 1971. But this is funnier. Final fun fact: since the switch to decimalization was made partway through Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, all the coins in the decimal system have only ever worn the face of one monarch.


The Opposite of Light Packing

I found a baggie of British coins in my things when I was packing at my parents’ house a week ago, and I put the whole thing in my backpack, figuring I’d use it all up when I got to England. It made my bag noticeably heavier, but no matter, it’ll all be gone soon, right?

Several pounds' worth of pounds--get it?!

Several pounds’ worth of pounds–get it?!

When I opened up the bag on the train into London, to count how much I had, I found that about two-thirds of the coins were from my first solo trip, when I collected coins from different European countries before the euro went into effect. Oops, that’s a lot of dead weight I’m carrying around.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Spend it All on the Dream

If you’ve seen me in the last month or two, and you’ve asked me how plans are shaping up for my trip, first of all: thank you. Second of all: I’m sorry. Because I’ve recently realized that almost every time someone’s expressed interest in this exciting adventure of mine, I’ve responded with, “Yes, but I’m so worried about the money. It’s so expensive.” And that is a super annoying response.

Counting every penny

It’s annoying for a few reasons, right.

1) The basic middle-class-white-woman-in-the-US problem, wherein just by those demographics alone, I am in an impossibly higher income and standard-of-living bracket than so many of the people I’ll be meeting on this trip. Privilege is a complex thing, so it’s never as easy as “other people have it worse than you, so quit whining”; it’s more “other people have it worse than you, so what are you going to do about it?” For me, the answer involves voting across all levels of government, making public stands with others at rallies and marches, calling my representatives on big issues (don’t just email!), and coming up, volunteering with various organizations. That’s all well and good, but the basic distastefulness of fretting over funds for a year-long pleasure trip in a world so fundamentally unequal remains.

2) This isn’t exactly an attainable thing for a lot of people I know, either. Most RTW blogs like to talk about how anybody can do this! live your dream! cast off fear! And that’s a nice sentiment, but it blithely ignores crushing student loan debt and wretched wages in this economy, not to mention health problems and family obligations. RTW trips aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but even for those who’d like to take one, there are very real and sizable obstacles. I’m unattached, not in a career job, debt free, and in good health–a relatively rare confluence of conditions.

3) I have saved quite a bit of money! I never did the hardcore saving, giving up daily luxuries and forgoing drinks at the bar; instead, I enjoyed the heck out of my life in Chicago and still managed to put away a few hundred dollars every month for this trip. I’ve done dozens of calculations, and I’m pretty sure that barring any disaster (knock on wood), I can at least make it through eight months of travel, enough to get me to England for my grandmother’s 80th birthday celebration. Of course, I intend to keep traveling after that, but if that has to be the grand finale, well, that’s not too bad.

If the trip ends sooner than expected, I’m okay with it ending here.

4) It is just plain obnoxious to complain about how broke you are. Unless you were born into cyclical poverty or are having a really rough time making ends meet and genuinely wonder how you’ll make rent this month, please don’t complain about your finances. (Not to say there aren’t good sites for talking about the very real money problems we all face, especially young people trying to figure out how it all works.) Setting aside whether anyone else would want to go on the trip I’m about to go on, no one wants to hear me moan about my money woes. We all have them.

Seriously, no one wants to hear about your money woes

Okay, but I’m still concerned about money for this trip. You can skip this if you’re already burned out on the subject (I don’t blame you), but in case you too are planning a RTW trip and wonder why no one ever seems to talk about this on their RTW blogs:

1) It’s all about stability, right? It’s scary to leave the best apartment I’ve ever rented, and a decent job, in a city I love, not to mention all the people I’ll miss. It feels selfish and foolish to leave an office job in this economy. I hate job hunting–it’s all the worst parts of dating without any of the fun parts–so I haven’t looked for anything in the last five years. But I have many friends who have moved jobs, and it’s been rough. Some of them looked for over a year to find something in their field, and these are really qualified people. It’s a scary thought, coming back to an economy that I can’t imagine will be much improved (and if a certain someone is elected in November, might well be worse). Sure, there’s the whole spin of “I’m a great candidate because of the new experiences my travels afforded me,” but let’s be real, that’s no clincher.

Does “sat on a beach in six countries” make me upper management material, Bob?

2) As I’ve shamefacedly admitted before, I’ve been so focused on this trip for so long that I haven’t made any plans for my return. At this point, I think I have $800 saved in a separate account labeled “Back to Life, Back to Reality.” That is… one month’s rent in Chicago. Not even one month’s rent plus security deposit. I’m really into planning things (shocking, I know), and it freaks me out to be setting myself up for a day-to-day life with no clear picture of what comes after, or how I’ll pay for it.

3) I’ve always prided myself on my independence, but there’s living on your own in the country you grew up in, and there’s being totally alone in countries that use a different alphabet from yours. I’ve gotten good at laughing with a carefree air whenever someone expresses surprise at the idea of traveling solo for such a long period of time, but inside, I’m thinking, “Yes! It is super scary!” I know it will be far more wonderful than frightening, but it’s still scary. Money is the cushion that eases any new/scary situation, so I think I transfer some anxiety about traveling solo onto the more tangible issue of traveling with enough money.

4) With limited funds (and limited time), it is impossible for me to visit every place I’m interested in visiting. This has been a hard one to accept, as you can see by the many times my proposed itinerary has changed. I have serious FOMO about travel (I hear the kids are using that term). I’ve read so many accounts of amazing experiences in just about every country in the world, and I’ve been anticipating this trip for so long, that I’ve convinced myself it won’t be worth it if I don’t do everything all in this one go. Yeesh! What pressure.

I have a lot of pins, okay?

I don’t generally consider myself someone who gets worked up over money issues, because I’ve been fortunate enough to always make enough to be comfortable (those two years in the publishing industry excepted). So these overwhelming fears about having “enough” have taken me by surprise. I see where they’re coming from, but they’re no good. I gotta move past them.

Partly, that involves adjusting my approach to travel in general, and that is something I’m looking forward to doing. I won’t be engaging in the kind of slow travel that some do, but I will be slowing down my usual pace considerably. Rather than zipping from sight to sight to make sure I get everything checked off my list, and rather than worrying about how much it’s going to cost to do all that checking off, I’m going to go at it a bit more leisurely. A week in one location here, a couple weeks in another location there, and I hope to come away with a better understanding of the places I visit and the people I meet. Incidentally, this approach also cuts down on the cost of plane tickets.

I think it’s a sign.

It’s probably terribly gauche to post a PayPal link after a post like that, but here it is. I am genuinely easing up on my anxiety about money, but if you’d like to shut me up about it once and for all, and also fund a swim with dolphins or a volunteer project with elephants, please check out the post here. No worries if you don’t! I’d hate to drive away readers with pleas for money, so I’m trying to keep these few and far between.

Images 1 and 2 mine. Image 3. Image 4. Image 5.

The Donate Button is Live

Dearest fellow travelers, as you know, I’ve been saving for this trip for a very long time, and I’m proud to say that it’s all my own savings. Still, I’m not one to turn down others’ generosity. Some friends and family members have expressed interest in helping me out a little, and I’m grateful to them and want to make that process as easy as possible.

I’ve set up a page with special excursions I hope to make that are a little pricier than the fee for a museum or national park. You can take a look at these and decide if you’d like to contribute a little toward getting me there. I think this is more fun than handing me $5 and hoping I do something worthwhile with it. You can find that page, called “Fund This Stowaway,” in the top banner of every page. You can also click the “Donate” button in the left sidebar, to go straight to the PayPal page.

I have a longer post brewing about the anxieties of travel, money, and self-sufficiency, but for now I’ll just say: It’s important to me to pay my own way. It’s important to me to grow comfortable with the fact that I can’t afford everything I want to do on this trip. It’s important to me to gracefully accept the help others offer to open up possibilities.

Thanks for reading this and all the other posts. I enjoy keeping up this blog more than I expected I would, and I’m excited to keep it going on my trip. Please feel no pressure to press that “donate” button, and just enjoy the posts and leave comments. If you do donate, thank you, and I’ll email you personally to say it again.

Running the Numbers: How to Save for a World Trip

The title of this post is a little misleading, since this is less a top ten list of ways to cut down on costs and ramp up saving (there are tons of those out there), and more of a question about how much of that is good to do and how much is too much. Can I save up for a round-the-world trip while still enjoying my life here in Chicago, or do I need to radically alter my lifestyle?

counting my pennies

Photo from

I’ve been planning to go on a round-the-world trip for several years now, and I’ve been putting money aside that whole time, but the amount has varied over the years. I’ve never had a special account for it; I just designate my savings account as the place I save for the trip. It’s a little scary how very basic my financial situation is (no stocks or bonds, a 401(k) with like a grand in it), and that 30 Rock episode a few seasons ago, in which Liz’s nearly identical financial situation is roundly mocked, hit a little close to home. Part of that lack of funds is because I worked in publishing for a couple years, and as anyone who ever copy edited can tell you, you lose money doing that in the first few years. So it wasn’t until recently that I was able to put aside a set amount each month, which really ramped up the saving.

I’ve worked the math a few times, and so long as my employment situation stays steady and major disasters are kept at bay (knock on wood), I should be able to make my goal of $30,000 next August, and then I’ll be off. I’m proud of my ability to save more than I made at my first office job, but on the other hand, I don’t have any dependents, I live in a pretty affordable part of town, and I’ve been supposedly saving for years. Couldn’t I have saved more, faster? Where did it all go?

The answer is: it all went into my life. I’ve been spending my money on enjoying my time here in Chicago, and that has slowed down the saving noticeably. I’ve gone back and forth on whether this is the right way to do it, and usually I think it is. Several years ago, at the end of college, my then-boyfriend and I were considering taking this trip together, and we argued over how to go about it. I wanted to hoard all our pennies as quickly as possible, so we could be on the road right away. He wanted to explore the city we’d be moving to and have enough money to enjoy it fully. He didn’t want to have to miss hanging out with friends because they were going to a bar and we’d only budgeted two beers each that month. What’s the point in saving for fun if it means not having any in the meantime?

Now I think he was mostly right. I should have been saving more aggressively in the last couple years, when my salary got to a comfortable, reliable point, but otherwise I don’t have regrets about the way I’ve been going about it. I like being able to go out with friends and occasionally buy a round, or pick up the check on a dinner with a friend who’s a little cash poor at the moment. I think this kind of relative openness with money is healthy for friendships, much better than everyone counting out their share to the decimal and holding grudges against those who deviate. (Of course, it’s a different story when people between jobs or in a different economic stratum are in the mix, in which case common sense and compassion should reign.)

I also think a general kind of karma is involved. When I was a broke 18-year-old in Berlin, two Australians bought me a drink in a cafe and we spent the afternoon chatting about our travels. I offered to pay my share, but they were several years older, on a break from good-paying jobs, and they cheerfully waved my money aside. All they required was that I pass the favor on later in my travels, when I was in a position to do the same for someone else. A simple pay it forward concept, sure, but that doesn’t make it less important, and why shouldn’t it apply in our daily lives as well as our more exotic travels? Not that I walk around peeling twenties off a giant roll I keep in my pocket, and it’s not that I’m doing any better financially than most of my friends and acquaintances, but it is a conscious choice about how to spend what I have at my disposal.

After all, generosity doesn’t save nearly so well as money, so sometimes you have to spend a little of both and trust that it’ll balance in the end.