How a couple saved $45,000 to join Great Resignation and take mini-retirement

Almost a year ago, Claire Zhu and Peter Ovendorf quit their finance jobs and gave up their apartment in Charlotte, North Carolina. They haven’t let dust on their suitcases settle ever since. 

They’ve bopped everywhere from Egypt and Jordan to Thailand and the Czech Republic. “From the outside looking in, it seems like this was such a crazy, rash decision,” Zhu, 27, tells Fortune. “But really, it was very thought out because we’re both pretty risk averse.”

Their great adventure began in 2020 when Zhu started to realize finance wasn’t for her. “It wasn’t getting me up in the morning—not that jobs should do that,” Zhu says, adding that she felt burnt out.

After falling down an internet rabbit hole following full-time travelers who quit their jobs, she turned to Ovendorf and said, “We have to do this.” Ovendorf, 28, who enjoyed his work, was hesitant. But a stint working remotely in Colorado together went so smoothly that it convinced him to do a much longer trip.

The couple is part of the average 4 million people a month who joined the Great Resignation over the past few years. While some reshuffled into a different job, others, like Zhu and Ovendorf, exited the workforce entirely. The pandemic led many people to rethink how they want to live life, fueling a growing restlessness and existentialism among younger generations, who were already disenchanted by the increasing costs of buying a house, starting a family, paying for college, or simply just living. Remote work gave people the wheels to act on these dreams, accelerating alternative lifestyle trends like digital nomad living or working from a van.

Zhu and Ovendor opted for a yearlong mini-retirement—a break from a traditional career trajectory to explore and unwind. Zhu says their generation is “told to go to school and then get a degree and find a job and stick to that job for 40 years.” But things have since changed. “A lot of people are realizing…that 40 years is a long time. And, for us, we didn’t want to exactly wait until we were 65 to start doing all these things that we wanted to do.” 

So, they assessed their careers, finances, and other people’s travel itinerary and budgets to create a game plan: Save $45,000 and a small emergency fund. For about two years, they socked away an estimated $800 a month. 

They shared with Fortune how they brought their mini-retirement to life and kept costs down while on the road.

From carpools to $2-dollar meals

Zhu and Ovendorf were saving for a house in 2019, but decided to use that savings for their travel adventure. They cut down on going out, eating out, and buying non-essential items like clothes. At one point, Ovendorf had four roommates to help make rent more affordable. They also took advantage of low-cost alternatives, such as taking public transportation to get to work, carpooling for other outings, and enjoying free activities like hiking. Zhu even created an additional income stream, making and selling paintings on the side.

They finally hit their savings goal last March and took the plunge, narrowing down their top travel locations and scheduling the trip around rainy seasons and flight costs. “Our plan was to not have a plan,” Zhu says. “And I think we purposely stuck to that just because you never know what new thing is going to pop up on your radar.”

But they did know they needed to stick to their $45,000 budget. Ovendorf, maintained an intensive Google spreadsheet tracking how much the couple spends in each country and how in-line with their goals they are. 

They post every purchase they make on their website and TikTok to an audience of more than 189,000 followers. Because spending varies by the country, the duo doesn’t have a set budget for each spending category, but they follow general guidelines. They typically choose the most affordable hotel in a safe area, whether it’s a hostel or a campsite. In more expensive countries, they’ll buy groceries and make their own meals, and in cheaper ones, they’ll take advantage of inexpensive restaurants.

“To live how we are living, we’d probably spend more living in the United States,” Ovendorf says. “Some people just don’t realize you can travel for cheaper than we were living.” 

For anyone looking to take a similar adventure, they advise getting a budgeting app or inputting expenses in a Google or Excel sheet. They say if you’re a more responsible spender then you can give yourself leeway when budgeting and acknowledge spending will change monthly; but if you’re someone that needs structure, then create budget categories and a doable goal.

When traveling the world, going over budget isn’t the end of the world

Zhu and Ovendorf spend an average of 10 days to three weeks in one place. But their pace and the cost of plane tickets has hit their wallet harder than expected at times.

Despite all their careful planning, there are days they go over budget—but it’s usually the result of a calculated decision. In Turkey, they once wrestled with taking a hot air balloon trip that cost around $225 per person. After polling their audience with a 50/50 split, they decided to just go for it.

‘If you’re on a super strict budget, you can rob yourself of having some great experiences,” Ovendorf says. “So I’m glad we’ve paid to enjoy and experience certain things.”

But that doesn’t mean you have to pay top dollar for memorable experiences. Zhu says she thinks about the time they took the Ha Giang Loop, a winding mountain range in Vietnam that borders China. Riding on the back of their tour guides’ motorcycles, they ate every meal with them and stayed with their families, singing karaoke together and drinking “Happy Juice” liquor at night.

Of course, there were lows too. Zhu cautions that full-time travel is very different from a vacation: It requires constant planning, which can lead to decision fatigue. They’ll return to the U.S. in March, with plans to look for jobs that would allow them to be digital nomads. 

Along the way, the two have found other people who also are flipping the script on what work should look like., “You realize once you get outside your bubble,” Ovendorf says, “there’s a lot of different ways to live life.”

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