Financing a family gap year: managing your daily budget

I want to help other families plan for a big trip by sharing information on how we managed the financial side of things and what it’s cost us. We will be away for six months in total and are personally funding all aspects of our travels.

Our itinerary includes Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and New Zealand. In my previous post, I explained how we set an overall budget for our big family trip and from that, how to set a daily budget. We have a daily budget of £95 per day for the three months that we are in southeast Asia and £58 per day for New Zealand (I have family in NZ so that reduces costs).

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In this blog, I’ll explain in detail what our daily budget looks like, how we’ve allocated amounts to different categories like transport, accommodation and eating out; and how we ensure that we record all that is spent.

I’ll also cover how we are tracking against our budget across the categories, how our spend compares between the countries that we’ve travelled in and what we would do differently next time.

1. Daily budget allocations

Setting the amount that we had to support our family over a period of six months is one thing. But how on earth would we go about micromanaging our finances on a day-by-day basis, to ensure that we didn’t blow the budget in the first few weeks?

For us, it works best if we track our costs on a daily basis, putting aside 5 minutes each evening after the children are in bed to review the day’s spending and entering each expense into the Family Spreadsheet. The spreadsheet categorises each cost by location, date, type of spend and converts everything back to Pound Sterling. All credit to my husband Tim for setting up the spreadsheet and ensuring that we fill it in every day! If the idea of setting up a spreadsheet fills you with dread, there are plenty of apps available that you can use to track expenses.

A key element of our budget is that we’ve allocated a certain amount to different categories, and there are also sub-categories within that. This has helped us to keep track of spending across different areas and, crucially, has allowed us to make adjustments if necessary to balance costs. For example, if we overspend on accommodation, we can reduce spending on activities for a few days to compensate.

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Our daily budget for the three months in Southeast Asia

The categories are:

Accommodation – £40 a day. Not surprisingly, this category makes up the lion’s share of our spending. It includes all accommodation costs and covers hotels, villas, guesthouses and apartments.

Food – £25 a day. This includes all eating out and drinks. It also includes groceries, including nappies and toiletries.

Travel – £20 a day. This includes taxis, car rentals and road tolls, bike rentals, boats, trains, buses and regional flights.

Activity – £10 a day. This includes entry fees and tickets to things like attractions, historic sites, tours, museums, parks, equipment hire and cooking schools.

We also have a miscellaneous category, but this does not have a budget allocated to it. It includes everything else that don’t fall into the other four categories.

2. Actual spend 

I’m pleased to report that at the end of three months of travel, we have only overspent by £200 in total. This means that from our forecast budget of £95 a day, our actual spend per day has been £97.

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Our actual spend – more on accommodation than expected, less on activities

Category 1: Accommodation – Actual spend £46 a day (budget of £40 a day)

After three months of travel, we have come in over-budget by £6 a day. We found that accommodation costs varied significantly across the three months – see the bar graph below comparing the costs at all the places we stayed.

Our budget has allowed us to stay in mid-range places – usually a two-bed apartment or villa, or a larger hotel room. We occasionally splurged on a higher end property.

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Accommodation budget (red line) vs actual spend (blue bars)

We tended to spend more money the further into our travels that we went. This is because we felt that getting the accommodation just right generally made for happier times. I chose to pay a little more to have plenty of space; easy access to the outdoors; somewhere relatively central and with a pool or near the beach.

I’ve included a complete list of all the places that we stayed at the very end of this blog, including the nightly cost that we paid.

Category 2: Food – Actual spend £23 a day (budget of £25 a day)

We did a mix of self catering, picnics and eating out. It’s worth noting that self catering did not always work out cheaper than eating out. If good quality street food was available, then that would usually be our meal of choice – fresh, cheap and delicious! You can see from the list below just how much (or little) an average street food dish will cost:

  • Banh mi, Vietnam, 20,000VND (£0.67)
  • Char kway teow, Malaysia, 5MYR (£1)
  • Pad thai, Thailand, 60THB (£1.20)
  • Nasi or mee goreng, Indonesia, 30,000IDR (£1.60)

For a comprehensive guide to Indonesian food and costs see our friend’s brilliant blog post.

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Banh Mi – a staple in Vietnam at less than £1 per meal

Each meal eating out, across the three months, averaged £8 for food and drinks for all four of us. Eating out in Malaysia proved the cheapest – coming in at £6 per meal. Thailand was the most expensive at £11 per meal  (we were in a very touristy area so paid a premium).

Across the three months, we spent an average of £4 a day on smoothies, coffees and occasional cold beers – absolute essentials!

Category 3: Travel – Actual spend £22 a day (budget of £20 a day)

This includes taxis, car rentals, road tolls, bike rentals, boats, trains, buses and regional flights. Public buses and trains proved very good value for money, whilst regional flights were the most expensive.

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Sometimes we took taxis, sometimes we took cyclos

After walking, our most commonly used form of transport was taxis. We used taxis for short hops, longer transfers between towns and trips to and from airports and train stations. We usually used app-based services, such as Grab or Uber. Over the three months, we spent £391 on 63 taxi trips.

By far our greatest and perhaps most unexpected travel expense has been regional flights – flights within or between the countries that we’ve travelled in, spending a whopping £1,100 on eight flights. We decided pretty soon into our travels that overlanding long distances in buses or minivans with a toddler and a baby was not something we wanted to do. That said, we really loved long distance train travel in Vietnam.

Category 4: Activity – Actual spend £2 a day  (budget of £10 a day)

We spent far less than expected on activities, not even getting close to our budget of £10 a day. Wherever we travelled, we seemed to naturally seek out free activities – finding parks and waking tracks; pools and beaches. With two young children, it seemed a bit pointless to pay for entrance tickets to a bird park when they’d be just as happy chasing ducks in a rice paddy.

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Frog hunting in Bali – fun and free!

We also learnt that trying to pack too much into a single day usually made for miserable times. So some days, the only things we did was take a walk to the market for some food, followed by sandcastle making at the beach. Fun for everyone but also super cost-effective. Other days, exploring a local village or taking a bike ride was enough of an activity – there was no need to fork out money for entertainment purposes.

Category 5: Miscellaneous – Actual spend £3 a day  (budget was £0 a day)

This category did not have a budget allocated to it, but we spent £269 over three months on things like sim cards, laundry, haircuts, visas, medicine, clothing, postage and gifts.

3. Costs across the different places that we have travelled

Indonesia ended up being the cheapest place for us; and Thailand was the most expensive.

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Average daily spend by country across the different categories

Malaysia

Accommodation costs in Malaysia varied significantly from place to place. We found accommodation in Penang quite expensive. But Kuala Lumpur was good value as there are plenty of cheap, but great, apartments. Food seemed very good value for money and the quality of street food in Malaysia was second to none.

Activities included:

£23 mangrove tour of Kilim Nature Park, Langkawi
£5 visit to Kidland soft play, Penang
£11 for the train up Penang Hill
£5 visit to Kidland soft play, Penang (again!)

Indonesia

We ended up spending less in Bali, Indonesia than in any other part of our travels. This is largely because we stayed in some very good, but cheap, self catering places and as a result, spent much of our time in the pool and at the beach, and very little on activities.

Activities included:

£8 visit to Monkey Forest in Ubud
£9 boat trip to see the dolphins off the coast of Lovina
£2 visit to the Banjar hot springs
£3 on snorkel hire in Pemuteram

Vietnam

We found Vietnam extremely good value for money. The quality of accommodation was good, and the food cheap and delicious. Our costs here were higher than other places as we did more activities, ate out more and spent more on our accommodation. Also, our Vietnam visas for the month were £94, but were free in the other countries we travelled.

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Vietnamese iced coffee – an essential purchase!

Activities included:

£48 for market tour and cooking school for two people, Hoi An
£24 ticket for citadel & royal tombs, Hue
£12 entrance and boat to Phong Nha cave, Phong Nha-Ke Bang
£20 visit to Paradise Cave, Phong Nha-Ke Bang
£2 entrance to Vietnamese Women’s Museum, Hanoi
£2 body board hire, An Bang beach

Thailand

We were consistently over budget for the week that we were Thailand. Food was expensive as we were staying in touristy spots, so it was hard to find food where locals ate. Accommodation on Railay Beach was also very expensive so that pushed up costs – but it was such a spectacular spot so we were happy to pay the extra.

We didn’t pay for any activities as we spent our time splashing about in the turquoise waters all day, every day.

4. What we would do differently next time

Allocate a separate budget for regional flights – Our spend on transport was much higher than expected. Next time would set aside a separate budget line for regional flights, and properly cost them in advance, to make it easier to track spend and know what to expect.

Book regional flights earlier to save money – Part of the reason our regional flights cost so much is because we often booked them within a few days of travel. This is because our itinerary was rather fluid! We travelled with budget carriers and could have saved a lot if we’d booked these flights further in advance.

Spend a higher proportion of the budget on accommodation – We found that if we spent a bit more on good accommodation, we ended up spending less in other areas. For example, a well located hotel meant that could walk everywhere and save on taxis. If we booked a nice pool villa, then we tended to stay at home more and have local walks, rather than spending money on activities.

Allocate an amount for miscellaneous costs – Miscellaneous costs are inevitable so in future, I will allocate an amount for this. For this trip, £5 a day would have been plenty to cover our costs.

How do you go about managing your family budget? Got any questions about any aspects of our trip? Get in touch or leave a comment below.

Please note that there are affiliate links in this post. If you book or purchase something through an affiliate link, don’t worry, it won’t cost you any extra money – but a small percentage of the sale goes towards funding our travels.

Full list of accommodation and costs per night

Indonesia Legian, 3 Bed Villa £67
Legian, Mangga Bali Inn £16
Lovina, Star View Villa £32
Lovina, Villa Anna £37
Pemuteran, Sunia Loka £29
Pemuteran, Taman Sari £87
Ubud, Julia Villa £59
Malaysia KL, Cyberjaya £25
KL, Setia Sky £44
Langkawi, De Balquis resort £33
Langkawi, Labu Labi £32
Penang, Rangoon Residence £54
Penang, Ren i Tang £69
Thailand Aonang, Paradise Resort £39
Railay, Great View Resort £54
Railay, Sand Sea Resort £68
Vietnam Hanoi, Golden Art Hotel £53
Hanoi, Thuy An £48
Hoi An, Nga Mica Villa £45
Hoi An, Vinh Hung Resort £82 (1st visit – riverside suite)
Hoi An, Vinh Hung Resort £44 (2nd visit – standard room)
Hue, Cherish Hotel £58
Phong Nga, Farmstay £43

6 thoughts on “Financing a family gap year: managing your daily budget

  1. deahh says:

    Great analysis! We did a year abroad in SE Asia and I kept track of overall cost per country divided by days spent there, but didn’t dive more deeply into it than that. I’m interested in the actual spreadsheet you used- maybe we can DM and chat?

  2. NormalNomads says:

    Killer post!!!
    I agree with a lot of what you’ve pointed out. The most surprising for us (something you also acknowledged) is by getting a place with a pool, you spend less having to entertain yourself! Also, a place with a pool is usually not much more anyway. Also, we love pools.
    Oh, and thanks for the link 😀

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