How to organize finances for extended travel

ATMOrganizing our finances for extended travel was probably one of the most difficult aspects of our journey. How can we arrange it so we have access to our money from all over the world? How can we pay our bills from Timbuktu? How do we even know how much and to whom we need to pay?!

Getting it Set Up in the Beginning

The process of getting everything organized took many months – many months of working diligently every day to make sure it was all taken care of. Getting our checking and savings accounts organized so we knew how to access money from remote corners of the world took time. Even so, once we took off there was still more that came in and we had to deal with that from the road.

Start early on the process, as it’ll take a long time. This is definitely one area that you don’t want to put off til the last minute!

I started about four or five months before our departure. Every day I picked up our mail and sat down at the computer with the stack of bills and junk mail. Since we would be renting out our house, I didn’t want all that junk arriving. I researched on the internet until I found some address, then wrote and explained our situation and asked that they stop sending mail to this address. If I found an email address, I emailed. If not, I sent an actual paper letter through the mail.  Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t, but at least I made an effort to stop the flow of junk mail coming to the house.

stack of billsMy next step was to attack the bills. First I read the bill to see if  I could set up an autopay – a lot of them did. Each time I got a new bill, I went to the website and set up autopay and asked for electronic bills only. That process went on for an extended period because many of the bills were only due every quarter or even twice/year. If a bill came – I tried to set it up on autopay.

Although most of my bills could be paid directly and automatically, there were a few bills that couldn’t. For those, I contacted the company and explained my situation – and asked what they could do for me. Mostly, they were happy to work with me and we were able to set up an autopay situation. If that didn’t work, I set up billpay through my bank – they would send out checks from my checking account as needed.

It took over a year before we managed to find all the bills – well, almost. After three years on the road, once we were back in Boise, we discovered the bill for our irrigation water had somehow slipped through the cracks and we were months away from them starting the process of repossessing our house. Ouch! Trust me – you want to avoid missing a bill; the late fees were more than the bill itself.

For other mail, I changed our address to my sister-in-law’s house. She checked to see if anything important arrived and contacted me via email if it did. I could then make a decision on how to deal with it.

Another option you have is to use one of many mail-forwarding services that have opened to meet the needs of the many full-time snowbirds. You can arrange for them to hold your mail and ship it out whenever you contact them with an address. These services are great, but they will not open your mail to let you know if something important arrived.

Accessing Money from Wherever

ATM signThe next thing we needed to figure out what how to access our money from wherever we happened to be. We had used an ATM card in the past, and knew it would work quite well – there are ATM machines in all major cities and many small towns all around the world. However, most of them charge outrageously high fees, which would readily cut into our meager savings.

Fortunately, someone told us about the Schwab One account from Charles Schwab. We opened an account with them, and had an ATM card on that account. With that card, we paid NO fees anywhere in the world! NO FEES! I simply accepted the charge on the ATM machine, but Schwab paid me back for it and I didn’t have to pay it in the end. It worked very well.

I have also heard that Capital One offers a no-fee ATM card as well.

We also carried a credit card, and set up online banking so we could pay the bill online. Outside of the USA, we only used the credit card sporadically, but it came in handy for large purchases. Being able to pay the bill online meant nobody was bothered with a bill arriving in the mail, and we could quickly check the balance and make sure nobody had intercepted the number.

HOWEVER – I have to put in a HUGE WARNING about US Bank. We had two credit cards with us on our journey, in addition to our ATM cards. The card from US Bank was an emergency card only and we never used it. That said, we had more hassles and headaches with US Bank than we did with our other two banks combined. What it came down to was that they designed their system to flag anyone logging in from South America – so each and every time I tried to log in to make sure I had a zero balance, I got locked out. Regaining access meant rounding up a computer with fast enough internet that I could use Skype, sitting on hold for a long time, then finally explaining my situation and they checked my balance for me. Needless to say, that got old.

I went way up the ladder and ended up speaking with the head tech guy – he told me the system was designed that way and there was nothing they could do about it. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that if you are traveling in Africa or Asia, you will have the same problem. I say avoid US Bank and go with someone who can deal with international travelers.

Other Tips

Be sure you write down all card numbers and the phone numbers to contact in case of emergency and store them somewhere separate from your cards themselves. If your cards are stolen, you may not have access to internet to get the numbers – and you don’t want to delay in calling to report it stolen.

We also emailed all that information to ourselves in case everything we had was stolen.


Probably the most common question we get regarding finances is, “How can you afford it?” Here is a post with information about we afforded our travels, but it also links to articles on many, many other blogs about those bloggers afforded their travels. It’s a great resource!

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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11 Responses to How to organize finances for extended travel

  1. Kenin - The Constant Rambler March 8, 2013 at 8:57 am #

    That’s some good stuff! I have to look into that Schwab account. We already pay 90% of our bills online, but I was really worried about ATM fees and such.

  2. Nora - The Professional Hobo March 8, 2013 at 10:41 am #

    Great tips, Nancy! You hit it right on the head when you said it takes months to prepare. I actually enjoyed not rushing the process of selling up and packing out – which took about 6 months.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel March 12, 2013 at 1:32 am #

      @Nora – The Professional Hobo, It is kind of fun doing the preparation. A lot of work for sure, but when you just plug away at at a relaxed pace it’s not bad. It’s the frantic dash to get all the last-minute stuff done that’s hard.

  3. Wil March 8, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    I have am extended trip coming up and I got a Schwab checking account just for that reason (No fees ATM). It’s convenient and safer since it allows you to carry less money on your person because you can withdraw smaller amounts more frequently without a penalty.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel March 12, 2013 at 1:33 am #

      @Wil, Very true. I didn’t think about that advantage, but that’s huge for a single person. For us, as a family of four, it’s wasn’t that big of an advantage, but I can see how it would help for others.

  4. Mike Vermeulen March 9, 2013 at 11:50 pm #

    There are now mail forwarding services that open and scan your mail. travelingmailbox and virtualpostmail are two examples but there are other companies and I would recommend doing a search.

    I have been using such a service my current trip through Africa. When new mail arrives, they scan the envelope and send me email. I then have options to scan the contents, shred the mail or have it forwarded. This isn’t the only technique I use, but is also helpful tool in the mail toolbox.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel March 12, 2013 at 1:36 am #

      @Mike Vermeulen, that’s good to know! I had no idea they would do that. We didn’t use one of those services, but I thought they just forwarded the mail.

  5. Mike Vermeulen March 9, 2013 at 11:56 pm #

    One more tip is to get familiar in advance with how your ATM provider flags the account and what procedures are needed to unlock things. This also includes leaving a notice in advance with the bank on your account of your travels.

    Even with such notifications, I once had my ATM card stop working in Russia. Apparently, they had some numbers stolen and had decided to lock out all transactions from Russia and other places. For such an event, a backup/second ATM card with a second bank came in handy.

    Even when not locking out accounts, some banks will have a periodic fraud detection that can get triggered. Once this happens, know how to contact the bank (e.g. will the 1-800-xxx number work outside the USA or do you also need to know an alternate number?) either via phone or via email. Sometimes a lockout might happen because of what you do, but I’ve also encountered it when they shut down their service in middle of the night (USA time) but then middle of the day where I was at – so needed to try again.

  6. Charli l Wanderlusters March 10, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

    Some brilliant advice here Nancy.

    Fortunately we pulled out of buying our first home just before the UK economy took a nose dive in 2008 and so 2 years later, when we decided to make the move to the less conventional but way more exciting nomadic life, we were renting.

    We came upon similar issues to those you’ve listed and it was quite a few months before the pile of paperwork on my desk (now located in my parents house to save additional cash before we left) subsided.

    For UK residents the Halifax credit card offers similar benefits to your Schwab card. We use that and a Norwich & Peterborough debit card for free cash withdraws.

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