posted on February 22nd, 2016

This piece was contributed by Catherine New, senior editor at Earnest, a technology company using software automation, smart design, and exceptional service to restore trust in the lending industry and help clients take control of their finances.

Attention travel junkies: The secret to low-cost travel actually has nothing to do with travel.

To talk to world traveler and entrepreneur Chris Hutchins, 31, it’s really about having the right mindset about money — and his mindset is about making sure that every dollar he saves or spends has a purpose. By being efficient with his money, he can afford to travel internationally, while making other smart money moves like maxing out his 401(k).

Hutchins is currently an entrepreneur-in-residence at GV (formerly Google Ventures) where he is building Grove, a startup to disrupt the financial advice industry. He has also visited 58 countries and counting and was interviewed by New York Times about his travel hacks.

The secret to cracking the travel code? Giving every dollar a job when you’re not traveling. That means every dollar is either earning compound interest in an investment account — or earning rewards if it’s being spent.

“I try to think of every financial decision as an opportunity cost decision,” he says. “If I am not putting money into my 401(k) or paying off debt, what else is it doing?”

Having a financially responsible mindset underscores the way we think about money at Earnest. Refinancing student loans into a lower APR, for example, is another way to make your money work harder for you — by saving on interest payments and providing some extra money to travel the world.  

We spoke with Hutchins as he prepared for a winter trip to Nicaragua, about his best secrets for making the most of his money and traveling the world.

Who: Chris Hutchins

Total country count: 58

Favorite places: “Syria in 2008. The food was the best in the world and the people are easily the nicest and warm-hearted.” Second favorite place: Namibia for wildlife and remoteness.

Best travel hack: Traveled to 19 countries in eight months for $14,000 with his wife. “That’s definitely less than rent in San Francisco.”

Switch up your money mindset

If you’re tracking your spending, you may not be tracking the right thing. Hutchins says the one thing that has helped him budget his money is tracking his saving instead.

He says he mentally “saves 100 percent” of his money. From there, he allocates to various expenses. Hutchins says this inverted way of thinking helps him prioritize what he wants to spend money on.

“I have to really want to go out to dinner to spend money and go out to a nice restaurant,” he says.  

Another trick Hutchins uses to think about money: If you want to double your money, just cut your spending in half. When you do spend, make your “spend” work for you. Which leads him to his next point.

Use credit cards to earn rewards

Cash and debit cards don’t come with any rewards, which is why Hutchins has learned to use credit cards responsibly.

“If you can optimize your credit card spending, the average rewards [card] will give you at least 2 percent back in rewards or points,” he says. And thus begins the road to earning points that can be used for traveling.

If you’re a newbie to the world of rewards cards, Hutchins suggests looking for points that are flexible and can be used on multiple airlines. He says he also looks for credit cards that have big signing bonuses in the form of extra points. (Research your options with this credit card finder.)

Hutchins says another easy way to ensure you’re racking up points in the right way is to use the same airline for all your travel and use its frequent flier program.

Make sure you know where to get information

One of the biggest secrets of getting good travel deals knowing what services to use and when. Hutchins shared a few of his tricks.

First, don’t only rely on only flight aggregator sites like Orbitz or Kayak to track prices. Some airlines, such as Southwest, are not listed there, so it’s worth looking on individual airlines’ websites as well. He also notes that international destinations often have local carriers that can get you from points A to B, which are not listed on big travel aggregators.

His tip? Check the Wikipedia page for the airport at your destination to see what local airlines serve it.

For hotels, Hutchins also says it can pay off to go beyond the standard booking routes. For example, in major urban destinations, the app Hotel Tonight can help you book same-day if you’re okay with a little uncertainty about where you will be staying.

He also uses Airbnb, which can help serve as middle ground in destinations in Eastern Europe where accommodations tend to be either very expensive, for business travelers, or very cheap for backpackers.

Outsource point optimizing

Lastly, Hutchins says if you have been collecting rewards points and are now ready to start using them, it can be time-consuming for a first-time travel hacker to figure out how to maximize their value. Instead he likes to use services like Flight Fox or Book Your Award.

“I tell everyone you have two choices: time and effort and energy to learn or use services online that will help you,” he says.

Catherine New is senior editor at Earnest, a technology company using software automation, smart design, and exceptional service to restore trust in the lending industry and help clients take control of their finances.